civil asset forfeiture
February 21, 2019

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ruled 9-0 that constitutional protections against "excessive fines" extend to states through the 14th Amendment, placing limits on the ability of state and local police to seize and keep cars, cash, houses, and other assets used in the commission of crimes, even from people not accused of crimes. The practice, known as civil asset forfeiture, is a common and lucrative source of revenue for states and local governments, and it is frequently abused. The unanimous decision in the case, Timbs v. Indiana, won't end the practice but will allow people whose property was seized to argue in court that the amount taken was disproportionate to the crime.

"The historical and logical case for concluding that the 14th Amendment incorporates the Excessive Fines Clause is overwhelming," Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote for the eight-justice majority. (Justice Clarence Thomas wrote his own opinion.) "For good reason, the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history: Exorbitant tolls undermine other constitutional liberties" and "can be used, for example, to retaliate against or chill the speech of political enemies."

In the case at hand, Indiana ordered small-time drug offender Tyson Timbs to pay $1,200 in fines and fees after pleading guilty to selling $225 of heroin, but they also seized his $42,000 Land Rover, arguing that even though he bought it with money from his father's life-insurance policy, he used it to commit crimes. "People are still going to lose their property without being convicted of a crime, they're still going to have their property seized," Wesley Hottot, a lawyer for Timbs, told The New York Times. "The new thing is that they can now say at the end of it all, whether I'm guilty or not, I can argue that it was excessive." Peter Weber

August 11, 2016

The Drug Enforcement Administration has used a broad network of travel-industry informants to monitor air and rail travelers in the U.S., pulling aside passengers they view as suspicious and, more often than not, seizing cash and letting the suspect go, USA Today reports, citing interviews with current and former DEA agents and court records. DEA teams used to focus on seizing drugs from mules at airports, but when post-9/11 security overhauls made airline drug trafficking too risky, agents started targeting cash. Since 2006, USA Today says, agents have seized at least $209 million from 5,200 people at the 15 busiest U.S. airports, with $52 million of that seized at Los Angeles International alone.

Most of the seized cash is reportedly turned over to local police departments. "They count on this as part of the budget," Louis Weiss, a former supervisor of the DEA group assigned to Atlanta's airport, tells USA Today. "Basically, you've got to feed the monster." The agents can't access the Homeland Security terrorism flight databases, and they cannot get travel information from the airlines. But based on the information they do get, they stop passengers flagged for paying cash, flying one-way, or listing fake phone numbers, among other criteria. Normally no warrants are involved, and the suspects can walk away after handing over their cash for a receipt. If the person doesn't challenge the asset forfeiture in court, there's often no record, USA Today says.

The DEA says it is trying to siphon money from drug trafficking rings. "We want the cash. Good agents chase cash," George Hood, a retired former DEA team supervisors at Chicago O'Hare, told USA Today. "It was just easier to get the asset, and that's where you make a dent in the criminal organization." Read more about the DEA's surveillance, and some stories of people who got some of their money back, at USA Today. Peter Weber

June 11, 2015

A new report from the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Pennsylvania finds that Philadelphia law enforcement use civil asset forfeiture to confiscate millions annually in cash and property from citizens, many of whom are never convicted of any crime. For those who lose their money, cars, and even homes but don't undergo criminal trials, reclaiming their property requires Philadelphians to "wage complicated and time-consuming legal battles in civil court without the help of counsel or other safeguards."

About $2.2 million of the seized money goes to the Philadelphia district attorney's office, providing 7.3 percent of its budget. Not coincidentally, the same office supervises the asset forfeiture program.

While civil asset forfeiture was introduced as a way for police to take on high-rolling drug kingpins, the median seizure in Philly has a value of less than $200, and only 10 percent of seizures are worth more than $1,000. "The current system does not do a good job of distinguishing between drug dealers and the innocent people in the neighborhoods being destroyed by drug dealers," said Molly Tack-Hooper of the ACLU. In one particularly shocking case the report mentions, a woman's home was seized after police found a small quantity of drug paraphernalia belonging to her son in her house. Bonnie Kristian

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