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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.

Can a No Trespassing Sign Keep Police Away?

Can No Trespassing Signs Prevent the Police from Entering Your Property for a Search and Seizure?

There are many misconceptions about a person’s right to be free of unreasonable search and seizures, especially when it concerns searches of private residences.

Can a No Trespassing Sign Keep the Cops Away?One common mistaken belief is that no-trespassing signs will keep the police off private property if they don’t have a warrant. Similarly, it is also a common belief that even if the police have a warrant, they must knock before entering a home or even announce themselves as the police. Surprisingly, none of these actions by the police are covered under the protections of the 4th amendment.

So What Does the 4th Amendment Protect Against?

The 4th amendment’s protection against search and seizure is the bedrock of all law concerning the search and seizure of a citizen’s person or property. It was the unfettered discretion and abuse of the police power that led to 4th amendment protection. It is important to be familiar with the exact phrasing, in order to appreciate the limitations of the police’s power to enter a home or search one’s property. The 4th amendment states that:

“the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

However, over the last century, it has been the job of state and federal courts to interpret these words and create exceptions. As the challenges to searches make their way through the courts, such as the police entering property despite the presence of no-trespassing signs, the courts consistently rule against the suspect. Below is more explanation to this complicated area of law.

What Can Keep the Police from Searching My Property?

The law states that there is an intrinsic right of people to enjoy an “expectation of privacy.” This means that, generally speaking, the police are not permitted to enter one’s home without a warrant. If they have a proper warrant there is very little one can do to challenge a search.

When it comes to merely entering a person’s property to speak with a suspect, the courts have recently ruled that the police may enter without a warrant. The reasoning is that the general public has an implied license to knock on a door without actually entering and, therefore, the police can as well. Unfortunately, a no trespassing sign is not enough to revoke the right. However, there have been a few successful challenges to the “implied right” to enter the property. The suspect may be able to keep their right to privacy to keep the police from walking on the property at all by:

  • locked gate
  • call box or a sign with a telephone number directing the visitor to police to call first
  • Guard dogs if there is a sign announcing they are present

Finally, the police can actually enter a home or property without a warrant, if certain conditions exist. Exceptions to the 4th amendments warrant requirement include:

  • Open Fields Doctrine – any open or undeveloped property that is not intimately used for dwelling (including curtilage.) An example would be the suspicion that the suspect is growing marijuana in a wooded area. They can enter the area without a warrant.
  • Abandoned Propertywhen the owner does not maintain possession of the property
  • Consent – when the owner or person in possession of the property voluntarily gives their consent. The police do not need to inform the owner of this right. Also, recently the Supreme Court ruled that if a person is arrested and refuses to give their consent, they can ignore that consent and search if the remaining occupant gives consent.
  • Exigent Circumstances – immediate action is necessary. The time it will take to obtain a warrant could lead to the evidence will be destroyed, death or escape.
  • Plain View – the police can seize any item they have probable cause to believe is associated with criminal activity that he sees in plain view. This item can be seized even if it is not named in the warrant and will likely be added to the suspect’s charges.

Do I Need Legal Advice?

If your home has been searched and you feel that your expectation of privacy has been violated, you should immediately contact an experienced criminal law attorney. Even if the police try to use one of the exceptions to the requirement of valid warrant, an attorney will help ensure that you put forth the best defense possible.

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Police Detain Actress for Prostitution after She’s Seen Kissing Her Husband

When a police officer walks up to you and asks for identification, do you have to present it? On one hand, doing as requested could save you a lot of headaches and hassle. On the other hand, if law enforcement stops every other person, we might begin to wonder if the police aren’t just abusing the power. Danièle Watt’s story provides an interesting example of the latter.

daniele wattOn September 11, Danièle posted on Facebook that she had been detained and handcuffed in North Hollywood because she had been seen kissing her husband, Brian Lucas, in public. Danièle and Brian suspect that someone had reported them to the police because the interracial couple looked like a prostitute and client. When the police arrived, Daniele was on her cell phone with her father. When the officers asked for ID, Brian presented his ID but Danièle refused.

The officers forcibly handcuffed Daniele, who cut her wrist during the commotion. The police officers held Danièle in the back of the squad car until they realized Danièle had starred in the movie Django Unchained.

Do You Have to Present Police with Identification?

Can the police randomly ask people for identification? Like most legal questions, this depends on the situation. If the police stop a driver or an airline passenger, the police have the right to ask for identification. Since the police have the right to ask for a valid license when they pull over a vehicle, they also have the right to ask for proper identification at the same time. Airline passengers are a larger stretch, but courts have ruled that safety concerns (especially after 9/11) give officers the right to stop passengers for identification. Since neither driving nor flying are rights, there is less legal protection that people can rely on.

Wait, you might say, Daniele wasn’t driving or flying. She was just standing around in public when the police stopped her. Well, Daniele had every right to refuse the police request for identification. If a person isn’t engaged in a licensed activity and/or interstate travel, fourth amendment protections against unreasonable searches are stronger. In other words, police cannot search a person without a warrant or reasonable suspicion.

Since Daniele didn’t have an outstanding warrant in her name, the only way the police could demand rather than request identification was if they had a reasonable suspicion that she was doing something illegal. Currently the police department is denying the incident ever happened, despite photos to the contrary. For argument’s sake, let’s assume the police will argue (and they probably will) that they had a reasonable suspicion: they thought Danièle was a prostitute.

This is where the true value of forcing police to prove they had a reasonable suspicion comes to light. Is it reasonable to assume that a woman is a prostitute because she’s kissing a man in public? Of course not. There are plenty of alternative explanations, like the fact the “prostitute” and the man are dating or married. Aside from Danièle and Brian’s appearances, which the police can’t use because then it would be racial profiling, there was nothing distinguishing Danièle and Brian from every other couple walking the streets of LA County.

Some people might say that Daniele could have avoided this entire incident if she had merely given the police her identification when requested. The problem is that unless the police have a reason to demand identification, the police have no authority to compel that information and Daniele had every right to her privacy. The burden was not on Daniele to obey. The burden was on the police to establish that they had reasonable suspicion, which they clearly could not.

There is one thing Daniele could have done to confirm whether the police suspected she was doing something illegal. If anyone is ever stopped by police, they can always ask if they can leave. If the police say yes, then by all means walk away. If, however, the police say no and demand your identification, then you should probably present ID. They might not be able to prove their suspicion right then and there, but you can contest the charges in front of a judge and have the “suspicion” thrown out.

The Law of Burning Man

For those unfamiliar with Burning Man, it is a gathering in “Black Rock City” in the middle of the Nevada desert. The event focuses on fostering principals of love, creativity, self-reliance, community, and being in the moment. As such, it is hard to imagine that the long-arm of the law has anything to do with the event.

burning manHowever, as a 5-square-mile pop-up metropolis, law enforcement is absolutely, and understandably, present. Moreover, the land where Burning Man awakens every year is federally owned, meaning the event and event-goers (“Burners”) are subject to both federal and state law.

What Is the Law of Burning Man?

It’s important to mention that the law governing this five-day (up to ten-day, for some) desert soirée is incredibly vast. From a Burner’s perspective, the law of Burning Man is likely akin to “be nice, be safe, have fun.”

However, from the perspective of the Federal Bureau of Land Management, Nevada Highway Patrol, and a handful of Nevada Sheriff’s Officers and law enforcement bodies, the law is the black letter, on-the-books law of the Nevada, and, to top it off, any applicable federal law.

Here’s a simple breakdown of relevant criminal laws that may affect Burners:

  1. Speeding – While entering the event, the speed is a strict 10 m.p.h., and while in Black Rock City, the speed is 5 m.p.h. While Burner’s are generally strictly prohibited from driving once they arrive at their campsite, arriving at and leaving from could land speeders with a hefty moving violation.
  2. DUI – Similarly, driving under the influence is just as serious of an offense in Black Rock City as it is anywhere else in the country. Again, while Burner’s are typically not driving around during the festival, it’s possible to get a vehicle permitted to do so. Additionally, certain types of vehicles, such as electric bicycles or other devices that are not solely human powered may fall within the ambit of Nevada’s DUI laws.
  3. Contraband – This is potentially the biggest overlap with federal law the event faces, and consequently the one with the most potential for serious legal issues. Since the event is on federal land, and marijuana is illegal under federal law, any marijuana—even medicinal marijuana—is strictly forbidden.

It’s also worth noting that dog sniffs of vehicles do not constitute a search. There is an argument to be made that a camp has a higher expectation of privacy; however, that argument wouldn’t have an audience until after a search based on probable cause and potential arrest, thus ruining an otherwise fun party.

How Else Could the Law Affect the Party?

Wrongful death and personal injury lawsuits all have a quiet potential at Burning Man. Sadly, this year a young woman was killed by a bus transporting participants. This is the first tragedy of this sort in 7 years, but it is a universal truth that accidents happen. Additionally, the back of the Burning Man ticket may attempt to waive liability for such accidents.

However, courts frequently disregard such waivers. Meaning quite simply that if the surviving family is so inclined, they may be entitled to seek compensation for their untimely loss.

Is Burning Man Just Filled with Eager Police?

Each year, there is roughly 1 police officer per 1,000 participants. While that seems low, consider that New York City has roughly 4 police officers per 1,000 residents. And, remembering that New York City is a city of over 8,000,000 compared to Burning Man’s 50,000-70,000, that figure becomes pretty staggering.

Still, arrests are rare for an event of this size and duration. From 2010 to 2013, only 38 participants were arrested of the 227,248 who attended. However, drug citations are remarkably higher, creeping in at just under 1,000 issued during that same time frame.

These numbers provide a pretty clear message: come for the fun, but if you break the law or bring drugs, don’t be surprised if you get burned.

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Can Police Lie?

We’ve all seen or heard the rumor: if you ask a police officer if they are a police officer, they have to tell you.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

The reality is, police can, and often do, lie. They can lie about being undercover. They can also lie about anything.

can police lieWhy Can Police Lie?

One word: efficiency. After all, a police officer wouldn’t be able to do their job very well if they had to just recite actual facts to suspects.

For example, let’s assume there are two suspects who are arrested on suspicion of drug trafficking. And, let’s also assume they were actually transporting illicit substances, but the police don’t have any concrete evidence. So, they tell one suspect that his cohort just sold him up the river, confessed to everything, maybe even some extra stuff too just to get them to deny some crimes but admit to other crimes, and that person in turn admits to everything. In an instant, an otherwise evidence-less case is looking significantly stronger.

Put simply: the easiest and best way for police to get real, concrete evidence is to manufacture a story and sell it to a suspect.

What Can Police Lie About?

Anything. Well, almost anything. A better way to put it is more like they can lie about nearly anything related to the crime, and some things that are not closely related to the crime to a certain degree, depending on the facts and circumstances of the specific case.

However, that’s a lot to remember. The take away here is the police can lie about practically anything.

Here are some common scenarios where a lie from a police officer tends to dupe those who don’t know better.

1. False Confessions: As mentioned above, it’s pretty common for cops to mince words and put one person against another. They expect emotions to run high, and for the other person to automatically implicate the other, and in doing so, implicate themselves. It sounds ludicrous, but it works surprisingly well.

2. Better Sentence: Cops may also insist that by cooperating a suspect will get a better sentence or may not even wind up being charged at all. Let’s clear up some air about that – the police probably know better than to promise a better sentence, because they have been trained to know that would be illegal (more about that later on).

More importantly, the police have absolutely no power to charge anyone (that’s up the district attorney), and they certainly have no final say in what sentence someone receives (that’s up to the judge). The police simply enforce the law and make arrests when the law is broken, and believe me, they are good at that.

3. Other Suspects: It is not uncommon for law enforcement to insist that a person who is a suspect is not the only suspect, or not a suspect at all, and that this conversation is simply to help them figure out the whereabouts of the “real bad guys.” Again, police enforce the law and arrest people, and someone who is being interrogated or questioned by the police wouldn’t be unless they were at least suspected of one thing or another.

4. “Off the Record”: First of all, this may not technically be a lie because there is no “record.” A record isn’t exactly officially created until the questioning is done under oath. Which, even if a police officer turns off a tape recorder and video camera, is absolutely what they will do after they are arrested and they are called in to testify at the defendant’s preliminary hearing: give statements under oath.

Are There Any Limits?

Fortunately, yes. Unfortunately, they are vague and narrow. Without getting into the legal definitions of how far is too far, the main consideration is whether or not a lie or series of lies was coercive. In other words, if a police officer makes definitive assurances, or anything leaning towards beneficial treatment or situations unrelated to the crime itself, the lie may have gone too far and the confession will be no good.

For instance, a New York Court of Appeals has recently said that where a defendant’s free will is completely overwhelmed, lies stop being lies and become something worse. In one of those cases, a man was being interrogated in connection with the murder of 4-month-old son. He was told “67 times that what had been done to his son was an accident, 14 times that he would not be arrested, and 8 times that he would be going home.” However, most astonishingly, he was told that he needed to explain to the police how the accident happened so doctors could save his son’s life, despite that fact his son was already dead. Ultimately, while many of those assertions on their own did not taint the confession, the totality of all of those statements taken together was coercive that the defendant’s free will was deemed to be entirely destroyed.

Still, If I’m Innocent, I Have Nothing to Worry About. Right?

This perhaps the biggest lie of all. Innocent people wind up confessing to things they did not do all the time. Moreover, even if an innocent person doesn’t confess to a crime, it’s remarkably easy to implicate yourself, even if you are completely without fault. For example, a tall man fits a description of a bank robber, is arrested and questioned, and because he knows he is innocent, he tells the truth and admits to being in the bank, near the time of the robbery. He doesn’t need to admit to committing the crime to have already established more than enough probable cause – with perfectly innocent, legal behavior – to charge him. His situation starts to look worse if he starts answer questions about his financial troubles, all in the name of being innocent and wanting to cooperate.

And one more thing – memory is fickle. It isn’t uncommon for a blue shirt one day to become a yellow shirt another day; if someone if completely innocent buys into a law enforcement lie about “being innocent means nothing to hide” or “off the record, help us out with other suspects,” gives some information, and is later called in for more questioning or to testify and gives different statements, that innocent person is looking a lot like a guilty suspect.

What’s the Right Thing to Do?

Always tell the truth, even if the cops don’t. Ultimately, the specific “right thing to do” depends on many, many more factors than lying cops. However, at the end of the day, being honest is never a quality that makes a person look bad.

But in addition to telling the truth, it’s important for people to know their rights. It’s not against the law or being uncooperative to politely tell a police officer that their questions feel accusatory, irrelevant, or are just uncomfortable. From there, it’s usually best practice for a person being questioned to ask if they are a suspect and under arrest. Depending on the answer to those questions, we shouldn’t be afraid to tell law enforcement that if they are going to ask anymore questions, or make anymore statements (truthful or not) they will have to do so to a lawyer.