Highway Robbery: How Police Abuse Civil Forfeiture Laws

The news is currently flooded with examples of police abusing their power. Here’s another: civil forfeiture (a.k.a. highway robbery by the police).

civil forfeiture police abuse of powerConsider this example: you’re moving to a new city with your car weighed down with boxes of clothes, books, etc. When a cop pulls you over for speeding, he questions you about all the possessions in your car. He doesn’t believe your story, so he confiscates everything.

This scenario may sound farfetched, but it happens to thousands of Americans every year.

Under the civil forfeiture process, police are allowed to take and keep your property or cash if they believe it’s connected to an illegal activity—even if you aren’t charged with a crime.

Civil forfeiture is most commonly used against motorists, but police have also used it to seize homes. Also known as asset forfeiture, this legal process was prominent during the Prohibition era in order to thwart the activities of bootleggers. It was used by the police in the 1980s in the war on drugs.

After 9/11, the departments of Homeland Security and Justice spent millions to train local and state police to be their eyes and ears on American highways. This meant being more aggressive when looking for suspicious people or drugs.

Unlike criminal procedure, where individuals must be convicted before their property is confiscated, civil forfeiture is a dispute between the police and the seized item in question; your guilt or innocence is irrelevant. To regain your seized property, you must prove that their property was not connected to the alleged illegal activity. Most people do not regain their property because the legal process is long and sometimes far more expensive than the seized items are worth.

The most commonly seized items are cash, vehicles, and personal property. Civil forfeiture cases are lodged against the seized property and not the owner of the property, so the case names seem ridiculous, such as:

  • United States v. Approximately 64,695 Pounds of Shark Fins
  • United States v. One Pearl Necklace
  • State of Texas v. $6,037

So, why is property so easy to seize? Unlike people, property has no legal right and most states do not have a presumption of innocence in property. Most police departments benefit from civil forfeiture because they get to keep the confiscated property that is not returned to the owner. What was once a legal practice meant to stop organized crime is now used to line the pockets of underfunded police departments.

Abuse of civil forfeiture laws has become rampant in recent years. In 2012, the value of seized assets was $4.3 billion compared to 2001’s $407 million.  Most of the money is shared with local police forces, so the incentive to use civil forfeiture is high when cities cut police department budgets. Some police departments have used seized money to purchase sports tickets, home security systems, a $90,000 sports car, and a margarita machine for office parties.

Civil forfeiture, if used properly, can have a positive effect and be a useful tool in the fight against organized crime. But so far it’s become synonymous with police abuse and corruption. When people read an article about civil forfeiture, they encounter stories about the police and federal agencies keeping $2.5 billion in seized property, or innocent people, like the Sourovelis, who have had their home seized without being charged or accused of a crime. By abusing civil forfeiture laws, the police fail to protect and have become twisted Robin Hoods that steal from the innocent and give to themselves.

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