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Police departments around the country make a fortune by stealing private property from innocent people. This process, known as civil forfeiture, lets police confiscate your property without ever suspecting of or charging you with a crime, and they are laughing while doing it.

As more and more cases of civil forfeiture come to light, national outrage surrounding the practice has grown. But, thanks to video footage released by the Institute of Justice, the cops might finally have a valid excuse for their criminal ways – they can legitimately claim, “We were just doing what we were taught!”

The compiled video shows civil forfeiture experts sharing techniques with law enforcement officers in order to help them steal from citizens more effectively. Some handy do’s and don’ts include:

  • DO NOT seize cellphones or jewelry. You can’t use them, you have to sell them.
  • DO NOT take computers. We have lots of those.
  • DO take flat screen TV’s. We can watch them at the station.
  • DO take cars. We can put lights on them and drive them around.
  • DO DO DO take CA$H!!! Always take the cash.

Trapping Innocent Owners

The fact that law enforcement officials can confiscate private property in the United States without a charge or a trial is outrageous. But what is more outrageous is the fact that the officers are actually trained to target innocent people:

In the sessions, officials share tips on maximizing profits, defeating the objections of so-called “innocent owners” who were not present when the suspected offense occurred, and keeping the proceeds in the hands of law enforcement and out of general fund budgets. (emphasis added)

Defeating objections is critical because, according to one slide,  “Once the suspect gets it back… it’s gone!” And just under that bullet point, the expert lists the worst case scenario for law enforcement: “We give it back.”  There is a word that perfectly describes this type of criminal activity, and it is called racketeering.

Is that too harsh? Not even close.

Consider the number of people that lose property without even being present. At the conference:

Prosecutors estimated that between 50 to 80 percent of the cars seized were driven by someone other than the owner, which sometimes means a parent or grandparent loses their car.

But their tactics to steal property are even more diabolical. One of the forfeiture experts – Pete Connelly, City Attorney for Las Cruces, New Mexico – proudly explained it like this:

And I thought, boy, what a trap. You liberalize marijuana so somebody can sell it, they sell the marijuana out of the house, then you seize the house, which is like 10 bucks of marijuana and you [the police] get a $300,000 house. What a deal. That’s really exciting. They get what they want, and you get what you want.

In other words:

  • Incite a small drug sale out of a property
  • Seize the property

And law enforcement has been running that play across the country. In Philly, the Sourovelis family had their home seized over $40 worth of heroin. Even though the home owners had nothing to do with the sale (it was their son), the entire family was thrown into the street.

And then there is the case of Tony Jalili. Tony owned a commercial building in Anaheim, CA and rented to a medical marijuana dispensary, which is legal in California. What happened next was straight out of the forfeiture playbook:

That dispensary sold $37 worth of cannabis to an undercover officer, who posed as a patient with a doctor’s recommendation. Jalali never bought or sold marijuana. Nor did the government charge him with a crime.

Jalili was just the landlord. He had no involvement at all. And yet, the City of Anaheim, aided by the federal government, tried to seize his building using civil forfeiture. Although Jalili ultimately won the case, he had to fight in court to prove his innocence for nearly a year for a “crime” that he didn’t commit and that was legal under California law.

Mocking the Victims

If stealing private property is bad, then being trained to do so is even worse. However, worst of all is being proud of it after the fact. Engaging in practices like this is the ultimate betrayal of everything a law enforcement official is supposed to stand for. And yet, some people are not only proud of it, but boastful.

One city attorney featured in the forfeiture videos bragged that he had won 96 percent of his forfeiture cases and that his legal documents were masterpieces of deception. There are websites and online communities in which cops openly compete with each other and compare “seizure sizes.” And one prosecutor even “boasted that he had helped roll back a Republican-led effort to reform civil forfeiture.

But that’s tame compared to how some of the participants “mocked Hispanics whose cars were seized” even while acknowledging that by stealing their property, they were destroying lives:

In the Santa Fe video, a police officer acknowledged that the law can affect families, but expressed skepticism of owners who say they did not know their relative was running afoul of the law.

“I can’t tell you how many people have come in and said, ‘Oh, my hijito would never do that,’ ” he said, mimicking a female voice with a Spanish accent.

To the people doing the taking, it’s all a big joke. Maybe if someone stole this guy’s car or house, he wouldn’t think it was so funny. That’s why law enforcement can’t be trusted to solve this problem on its own. It’s just too profitable. Too easy. And too fun.

As far as profit is concerned:

The value of assets seized, including cars, homes, boats, electronics, and jewelry, has ballooned from $407 million nationwide in 2001 to $4.3 billion in 2012. Over that time period, police have seized $2.5 billion in cash alone from almost 62,000 people without warrants or indictments

As far as how easy it is:

Prosecutors boasted in the sessions that seizure cases were rarely contested or appealed. But civil forfeiture places the burden on owners, who must pay court fees and legal costs to get their property back.

And in terms of fun:

Harry S. Connelly Jr., the city attorney of Las Cruces, N.M., called [items seized through civil forfeiture] “little goodies.” And then Mr. Connelly described how officers in his jurisdiction could not wait to seize one man’s “exotic vehicle” outside a local bar.

“A guy drives up in a 2008 Mercedes, brand new,” he explained. “Just so beautiful, I mean, the cops were undercover and they were just like ‘Ahhhh.’ And he gets out and he’s just reeking of alcohol. And it’s like, ‘Oh, my goodness, we can hardly wait.’ ”

The only way law enforcement will stop stealing from us is if we force them to. Civil forfeiture law must be rewritten, and officials guilty of abusing existing laws must be prosecuted.

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