The New Yorker Tackles Civil Forfeiture

While the evils of civil forfeiture are by no means new — Cato published a book about these laws way back in 1995, and has published much else since, as has my Overlawyered site — it isn’t often that you see a major media treatment as hard-hitting and effective as Sarah Stillman’s new article in the New Yorker. A few highlights:

* Stillman takes a close look at the scandal in Tenaha, Shelby County, Texas, one of many communities where officials have extracted large sums from motorists passing through in rented cars, sometimes threatening to seize the hapless visitors’ children, or actually doing so. Dashboard cameras that might record such encounters often seem to be non-working or obscured. “In some Texas counties, nearly forty per cent of police budgets comes from forfeiture.”

* A Philadelphia couple faced forfeiture of their row house because their son sold $20 worth of marijuana to an informant on their front porch.

* By the time the federal Department of Justice closed down the notorious Bal Harbour, Florida forfeiture program and ordered it to return millions in seized assets, “much of it had already been spent: on luxury-car rentals and first-class plane tickets to pursue stings in New York, New Jersey, California, and elsewhere; on a hundred-thousand-dollar police boat; and on a twenty-one-thousand-dollar drug-prevention beach party.”

* A Virginia state trooper on Interstate 95 seized $28,500 donated by parishioners of a Pentecostal congregation to buy a parcel of land for their church; no contraband was found, but Virginia participates actively in a federal “Equitable Sharing” program that enables local law enforcement to pocket a large share of seized money with few restrictions on how they can use it.

* Federal “fusion” counterterrorism centers can wind up assisting forfeiture cases with no terrorism angle, as with the seizure of the home, possessions, and wife’s jewelry of an Arizona store owner who’d entrusted one of his shops to a dishonest brother.

* In a 2008 incident, 40-odd men “in black commando gear” stormed a monthly social event at Detroit’s Contemporary Art Institute, abusing the guests and systematically seizing their cars. Guess what: the robbers were themselves law enforcement, raiding the venue for offering late-night liquor and dancing without a proper license, which made it, in the local terminology, a “blind pig.” (A blind pig raid touched off the 1967 Detroit riots.)

A quote from author Stillman:

During my time in East Texas, a police officer told me that if I ventured beyond Shelby County I’d learn that Tenaha was far from an outlier in the region. When I looked through courthouse records and talked with local interdiction officers in nearby counties, I saw what he meant. In Hunt County, Texas, I found officers scoring personal bonuses of up to twenty-six thousand dollars a year, straight from the forfeiture fund. In Titus County, forfeiture pays the assistant district attorney’s entire salary. Farther south, in Johnson County, I came upon a sheriff’s office that had confiscated an out-of-state driver’s cash, in the absence of contraband, in exchange for a handwritten receipt that gave the traveler no information about who had just taken his money, why, or how he might get it back.

Don’t miss this article.