By Ronald Fraser
If a dangerous street hoodlum demands and then flees with your wallet, the police will call that robbery.
But if a police officer seizes your cash, car or other property on the mere suspicion that it is somehow connected to criminal activity – and without ever convicting or even charging you with a crime – the police will call that a legal civil asset seizure.
According to FBI statistics, the combined value of street, highway, convenience store and bank robberies in New York in 2013 topped $31.9 million. New York State and local police departments, however, had a much better year – netting more than $125.1 million in proceeds from forfeited private property.
Let’s take a closer look at this $125.1 million “money-from-heaven” enjoyed by New York law enforcement agencies. According to the Institute for Justice, a Washington-based public interest law firm, New York State and local law enforcement agencies, on their own, enforcing state and local laws, took in forfeited proceeds totaling $46.8 million in 2013.
In addition, in partnership with federal agencies enforcing federal civil forfeiture statutes, the share of proceeds from private property seized in New York going to state and local police agencies totaled $11.2 million from the U.S. Department of the Treasury and $67.1 million from the U.S. Department of Justice.
This backdoor money flow is a blueprint for property rights abuse. Since New York laws allow up to 60 percent of these forfeited proceeds to go directly into local law enforcement budgets, the police have a huge, built-in incentive to aggressively target forfeitable assets rather than pursue justice.
Criminal forfeiture laws, but not civil forfeiture laws, require a criminal conviction to deprive people of their property. Under civil laws, however, the seized property itself, not the owner, is simply presumed to be “guilty.” To get one’s property back, property owners in all states – even if they are not charged or convicted of a crime – are then up against a short time limit to file a claim.
If the property owner can’t afford a lawyer or if the value of the property is less than expected legal costs, property owners walk away.
To end this shady practice, federal and state civil asset forfeiture laws need to adopt the same standards now applied in criminal forfeiture cases and also to prohibit law enforcement agencies from benefiting from forfeited proceeds. It is as simple as that.
Only then will property owners in New York and elsewhere no longer wonder if their law enforcement officials are following even-handed, due-process procedures, or padding their agency budgets at citizens’ expense.
Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization.