Banana Republic justice

Posted: 11/21/2014 in Screwed
Tags: ,

Imagine this: you’re an American citizen driving through a small South American country.  You’re stopped in a small town by an overweight, uniformed policeman with a poor grasp of English.  He tells you to give him all your money, meanwhile ransacking your luggage for other things he thinks he might like to have.  If you complain, you’re told to either shut up and go on your way or he’ll put you in jail.  What do you do?  Now imagine that you’re driving through any state in America and the same thing happens.  Now what do you do?

The answer, it turns out, is the same in both cases: nothing, because there’s virtually no way to win in either place.  Thanks to a 1984 federal law that was intended to keep major drug dealers from using their ill-gotten gains to buy their way out of trouble, the idea of Civil Asset Forfeiture has grown up.  And police departments all across the country are cashing in.

The Washington Post researched this problem and found:

  • There have been 61,998 cash seizures made on highways and elsewhere since 9/11 without search warrants or indictments through the Equitable Sharing Program, totaling more than $2.5 billion. State and local authorities kept more than $1.7 billion of that while Justice, Homeland Security and other federal agencies received $800 million. Half of the seizures were below $8,800.
  • Only a sixth of the seizures were legally challenged, in part because of the costs of legal action against the government. But in 41 percent of cases — 4,455 — where there was a challenge, the government agreed to return money. The appeals process took more than a year in 40 percent of those cases and often required owners of the cash to sign agreements not to sue police over the seizures.
  • Hundreds of state and local departments and drug task forces appear to rely on seized cash, despite a federal ban on the money to pay salaries or otherwise support budgets. The Post found that 298 departments and 210 task forces have seized the equivalent of 20 percent or more of their annual budgets since 2008.
  • Agencies with police known to be participating in the Black Asphalt intelligence network have seen a 32 percent jump in seizures beginning in 2005, three times the rate of other police departments. Desert Snow-trained officers reported more than $427 million in cash seizures during highway stops in just one five-year period, according to company officials. More than 25,000 police have belonged to Black Asphalt, company officials said.
  • State law enforcement officials in Iowa and Kansas prohibited the use of the Black Asphalt network because of concerns that it might not be a legal law enforcement tool. A federal prosecutor in Nebraska warned that Black Asphalt reports could violate laws governing civil liberties, the handling of sensitive law enforcement information and the disclosure of pretrial information to defendants. But officials at Justice and Homeland Security continued to use it.

Rep. Tim Walberg (R) recently introduced H. R. 5212 (Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act) in the House in an effort to limit the government’s ability to abuse its forfeiture powers.  While it only affects federal government agencies, it would at least be a step in the right direction.  But does anyone want to place any bets on the Act being passed?  Anyone?


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