Justice

Since 9/11, Police Have Seized More Than $2.6 Billion From People Who Were Never Charged With a Crime

As the Wall Street Journal highlighted last week, President Obama's nominee for attorney general, Loretta Lynch, seems to be a major proponent of civil asset seizures. Earlier this year, Lynch -- the U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of New York -- highlighted her office's seizure of over $904 million in private assets in 2013.

“Collections and asset forfeiture are important tools in our arsenal as we seek to ensure that crime does not pay," Lynch told the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in January. "We are honored to be part of this web of protection for the American people.”

This is almost certainly frustrating for voices on both sides of the aisle who believe these asset seizures are often unfair to citizens who are never convicted of crimes, yet permanently lose their property.

So what is civil asset forfeiture and why are people concerned about Lynch's enthusiasm for it?

A few weeks ago, John Oliver took aim at civil asset forfeiture laws that allow state and federal authorities to seize people's property without having to convict them of any wrongdoing. As the American Civil Liberties Union describes it: "Every year, federal and state law enforcement agents seize millions of dollars from civilians during traffic stops, simply by asserting that they believe the money is connected to some illegal activity and without ever pursuing criminal charges. Under federal law and the laws of most states, they are entitled to keep most (and sometimes all) of the money and property they seize."

Since September 11, 2001, police have collected more than 2.6 billion dollars over 61,000 seizures of cash from people who were never charged with a crime. In Philadelphia alone, authorities have seized more than 1,000 houses, about 3,300 vehicles, and more than 40,000 million dollars over 10 years.

So who gets this money? Some of it goes directly to the law enforcement agency who took it in the first place. As one police officer says, "we use it for things that are generally nice to have."  A DA office in Worcester, Mass., for instance, bought a zamboni. Officials in Montgomery, Tex., used money to buy their department liquor and a margarita machine. 

It's not just police, though. The Washington Post uncovered documents that show city officials in Washington, D.C., relying on anticipated profits from civil asset forfeiture in planning future city budgets. One wonders, what would the city do if they weren't making what they expected? Would they lean on police to seize more assets to close a budget gap? That's an uncomfortable question that explains why budgeting for seized assets is against federal guidelines. 

Critics argue that the basic problem is the poorly aligned incentives these laws create for law enforcement to presume innocence among suspects they apprehend, especially when the money they seize from them goes to perks and special equipment. As Oliver says, these laws desperately need review. Watch the video (below) for a better understanding, as well as for a few guaranteed laughs:

On the conservative side of the aisle, Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky has been an outspoken critic of civil asset forfeiture. In June, he introduced the Fifth Amendment Restoration Act (the FAIR Act), which seeks to reform civil asset forfeiture by requiring the federal government to prove a crime has actually been committed with clear and convincing evidence before it can seize assets. With regard to the states, here's where it gets interesting. Many states actually have laws like this on the books, setting a high bar for state and local law enforcement to take your stuff. The problem, say critics of forfeiture, is that these authorities can use lax federal laws to get around the state rules. Paul's FAIR Act would close that loophole and force local and state authorities to follow the asset forfeiture laws in their respective states.

This gets us back to Loretta Lynch, who will soon face questioning from the Senate on her credentials to be Attorney General. Considering that Lynch recently bragged about her nearly $1 billion dollars in asset forfeiture at a time when liberals and conservatives are questioning the fairness of that practice, one would expect this issue to come up.