civil asset forfeiture

Oklahoma Sheriff Indicted for Extortion, Blames Civil Forfeiture Reformers

Instances of civil forfeiture abuse are common. Indictments against law enforcement are not.

However, this week an Oklahoma grand jury returned an indictment against Wagoner County Sheriff Bob Colbert and one of his deputies stemming from a civil asset forfeiture case.  The indictment charges Sheriff Colbert and Deputy Jeffrey Gragg with extortion and bribery, among other things, stemming from the stop, arrest, and subsequent release of Torrell Wallace and a 17-year old passenger.  

According to the indictment, during a traffic stop of Wallace’s car, Deputy Gragg discovered $10,000 in cash.  When asked about the money, Wallace and his passenger both claimed it belonged to them and were subsequently arrested for “possession of drug proceeds.”

At the jail, the indictment alleges that Sheriff Colbert and Deputy Gragg told the men that they’d be allowed to go free if they signed over the $10,000 to the office’s asset forfeiture fund, which they did.

If this fact pattern sounds familiar, it’s because cases like this are not isolated incidents. The case of Javier Gonzalez sounds eerily familiar. In 2013 Sarah Stillman at The New Yorker documented several similar cases of seemingly extortive forfeiture actions.  Our friends at the Institute for Justice have compiled many more

Because the burden of proof for civil forfeitures is so low, even perfectly benign behaviors can result in seizures. These include carrying too much money, carrying money in an envelope or some other “unorthodox” fashion, or even “traveling to or from a known drug source city,” which seems to include virtually every major city in America.  Such a deficient process for government seizures of cash and property makes abuse inevitable, especially when the seizing agency is permitted to keep most or all of the proceeds for itself.

An Illustrated Guide to Civil Asset Forfeiture

This cheerfully drawn comic from the Daily Signal does an excellent job highlighting the insanity of civil asset forfeiture.  It begins with a quintessentially American premise: a young person setting out on his own, all wordly possessions in hand, to start a new life as an adult.  Far be it from me to spoil the rest:

 

Airport Pirates Find Bounty in a College Student’s Life Savings

Today, our friends at the Institute for Justice launched a new challenge to yet another instance of egregious civil asset forfeiture abuse.

Charles Clarke is a 24-year-old college student who found out the hard way that government officials can confiscate property on the mere suspicion that it has a “substantial connection” to a crime or is the proceeds of a crime. No underlying conviction is required. Functionally, this means that officers can claim that “something was a little off” about your behavior, or that “something smells a little like drugs” and then have carte blanche to take whatever cash you have on you. After that, your cash is presumptively guilty, and it is up to you to prove its innocence.

In the winter of 2013, Charles was stopped at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky airport based on the officers’ assertion that his bag smelled like marijuana. Actually, it was based off of a drug dog’s “signal” that his bag smelled like marijuana. By claiming that a dog “alerted” an officer can obtain probable cause, but in reality the dogs are about as reliable as Clever Hans.

After searching his bag, the officers found no drugs or other illegal substances. They then asked him if he was carrying any cash. Charles volunteered that he was carrying $11,000–clearly thinking, not unreasonably, that in a just world there is no way the officers could just take his money. Charles’s mistake, however, was thinking that he lives in a just world, and the officers walked away with his life savings.

Charles had saved the $11,000 over the previous five years, from work, financial aid, educational benefits, and gifts from family. Now he must overcome the officers’ hunches by proving that his money came from legal sources.

Governor Hogan, Civil Asset Forfeiture Is Inherently Abusive

Despite recent gains around the country, civil asset forfeiture reform suffered a setback in Maryland when Gov. Larry Hogan (R) vetoed a bill that would have placed restraints on the state’s civil forfeiture regime.

Civil asset forfeiture is a process by which the government is able to seize property (cash, vehicles, homes, hotels, and virtually any other item you can imagine) and keep the proceeds without ever charging the victim with a crime.  The bill, SB 528, would have established a $300 minimum seizure amount, shifted the burden of proof to the state when someone with an interest in the seized property asserts innocent ownership (e.g. a grandmother whose home is taken when her grandson is suspected of selling drugs out of the basement), and barred state law enforcement agencies from using lax federal seizure laws to circumvent state law.

In vetoing the measure, Gov. Hogan claimed that restraining civil asset forfeiture “would greatly inhibit” the war on drugs in the midst of a heroin epidemic and interfere with joint federal/state drug task forces. Gov. Hogan admitted that asset forfeiture laws “can be abused,” but that their utility outweighed the risk of abuse. 

Each of these assertions is misguided.

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