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Civil Asset Forfeiture: How the Government Steals Your Stuff
And gets away with it.
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One of the greatest misconceptions of America is that it’s a country free from government oppression. While politicians, pastors, and country singers sing the praise of American “Liberty” and “Freedom,” a quick peak under the hood shows the United States is far departed from the bastion of individual freedom it is purported to be.
Perhaps the most egregious way in which the U.S. state infringes on its citizens is civil asset forfeiture. Also known as “asset forfeiture,” this is the practice by which either a state, local, or federal government seizes the property of a citizen. The state taking property is problematic on its face, but even more egregiously, the property can be seized whether or not the citizen has been convicted or even charged with a crime. So if a cop even “suspects” you’re doing something illegal, your house, car, cash, or Nintendo Switch is now the property of the U.S. Government.
The legal justification for asset forfeiture is known as an in rem proceeding, which charges an item with a crime. Three types of “charges” can be brought against personal property: contraband (drugs, illegal weapons, etc.), instrumentality (things used to commit a crime, such as a car or a house), or proceeds (cash).
Forfeiture cases aren’t one-off occurrences, either. According to a 2020 report from the Institute of Justice, state, federal, local, and tribal governments have seized over $68.8 billion dollars from 17 million “data points” (Americans) since 2000. In 2014 alone, law enforcement seized over $5 billion from citizens, one billion more than was stolen through burglary.
The government justifies the Asset Forfeiture Program (AFP) by claiming it’s a useful tactic for combatting gang activity (though if it were, gangs would no longer exist). The Department of Justice writes:
“The AFP’s mission is to use asset forfeiture consistently and strategically in order to deter, disrupt, and dismantle criminal enterprises by depriving wrongdoers of the fruits and instrumentalities of criminal activity. Whenever possible, the program seeks to restore property to innocent victims of crime.”
Translated from lawyerspeak, this means the cops need asset forfeiture to effectively fight “crime.” Otherwise, they’d be hamstrung by pesky hindrances like fair trials, rights of the accused, protections against state overreach, defense lawyers, civil liberties, the 4th Amendment, the 5th Amendment, or basic human rights and dignities. You know, those things.
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As assets forfeiture is a direct violation of every civil liberty guaranteed in the Constitution, it has been brought before the Supreme Court multiple times. While few cases have done anything except give the cops an “atta boy!” for this nakedly authoritarian practice, no case has been more egregious than Bennis v. Michigan in 1996.
One night Tina Bennis’s husband solicited a prostitute and had sex with her in the couple’s jointly owned car. He was arrested, and the car was seized under civil asset forfeiture. Tina Bennis sued to get her back, as she had no involvement in the crime, and the car was legally hers. The case made its way before the Supreme Court, which, citing an 1800s naval conflict when the U.S. seized a ship from the King of Spain, decided Bennis’s lack of participation and knowledge of the crime was not a valid defense. Furthermore, the Court ruled Michigan was not required to compensate Tina Bennis for the car.
Tina’s husband cheats on her with a prostitute and gets arrested.
The cops seize her car, as it was “involved” in a crime she was never accused of.
The Supreme Court cites some bullshit about how the actions of a Spanish monarch who died before Michigan was even a state is the reason the U.S. Government can rob its citizens.
To be fair to the Court, they did rule in 2019 that the 8th Amendment’s prevention of “excessive fines” pertains to asset forfeiture (Timbs v Indiana). But “excessive” is a subjective measurement, one that means something very different to Ivy League Supreme Court justices than it does to working-class folk like Tina Bennis.
For example, in Timbs v Indiana, the seized asset was a $42,000 Land Rover, while Tina Bennis’s car was only worth $600. Supreme Court justices, all of whom are affluent and from upper society, would consider $42k as “excessive” while regarding the forfeiture of a $600 vehicle as “reasonable.” Yet the loss of her car (plus the cost of a gun she probably bought to shoot her cheating husband) would be devastating to Tina Bennis’s life, as it is the means by which she gets to work, takes her children to school, and participates in society.
Here lies the inherent evil of civil asset forfeiture. While infractions on anyone’s civil liberties should be staunchly opposed, not everyone is having their possessions stolen from them. The practice of civil asset forfeiture is well known as a disproportionate attack on Americans who are poor, working class, and people of color.
When the cops “suspect” someone of dealing drugs, they’re not arrested wealthy Whites dudes in BMWs. They’re pulling over Black and Brown people, searching them for loose cash, and concocting fantasies about how having “ziplock bags is proof you’re a drug dealer.” This isn’t hyperbole. It’s literally what happens to Nassir Geiger, who had his car and $580 stolen from him by the Philadelphia Police Department.
Nassir’s story is one of many, though outright theft isn’t the only way asset forfeiture screws over working-class Americans. Once an asset is seized, there are hearings for the owners to potentially reclaim their items, but like many other aspects of the justice system, lack of financial resources correlates with a depreciating chance of justice. Most court hearings happen during working hours, forcing defendants to choose between reclaiming their car/house/phone/money/etc. and losing their job. Sometimes the mere cost of hiring a lawyer to even review the case could exceed the value of the asset.
The government stealing citizens’ possessions is the kind of thing Americans believe “doesn’t happen here,” as it clashes with the rosy picture of a well-intentioned, altruistic government the general public believes our society is centered on. But if you’ve read any of my previous writing, you know America’s national self-image of liberty and individual freedom is a mask, used to hide the state’s oppression of the powerless and sponsorship of the powerful.
After all, the cops aren’t seizing Morgan Stanley offices for their Freud-level cocaine use, but they have no reservations about taking Tina Bennis’s $600 car.
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If you’d like to learn more about Civil Asset Forfeiture, listen to the Bennis v. Michigan episode of the 5-4 Podcast. It provides a realistic view of the Supreme Court and was one of my sources for this article.