Michael Salla, Robert O’Harrow Jr, and Steven Rich (The Washington Post) have written an interesting series on asset forfeiture (see the teaser “Civil asset forfeitures more than double under Obama,” by Christopher Ingraham on Wonkblog). The basic presumption of asset forfeiture is simple: you are guilty until proven innocent. If you are the target of “stop and seize,” you bear the burden of proving that your assets were not involved in criminal activity. Even if charges are never filed, you may not get your assets back. And due to the Equitable Sharing Program, state and local authorities have strong financial incentives to take asset forfeiture seriously. What could possibly go wrong?
A few striking facts from the first installment:
- There have been 61,998 cash seizures made on highways and elsewhere since 9/11 without search warrants or indictments through the Equitable Sharing Program, totaling more than $2.5 billion. State and local authorities kept more than $1.7 billion of that while Justice, Homeland Security and other federal agencies received $800 million. Half of the seizures were below $8,800.
- Only a sixth of the seizures were legally challenged, in part because of the costs of legal action against the government. But in 41 percent of cases — 4,455 — where there was a challenge, the government agreed to return money. The appeals process took more than a year in 40 percent of those cases and often required owners of the cash to sign agreements not to sue police over the seizures.
- Hundreds of state and local departments and drug task forces appear to rely on seized cash, despite a federal ban on the money to pay salaries or otherwise support budgets. The Post found that 298 departments and 210 task forces have seized the equivalent of 20 percent or more of their annual budgets since 2008.
According to the Post, asset forfeiture and the incentives created by the Equitable Sharing Program have contributed to more aggressive forms of policing and the use of private security networks. And there is good evidence that the same racial and ethnic biases that are intrinsic to the war on drugs come into play on a routine basis.
NSA collection of data, militarization of police forces, the wide scale practice of “stop and seize”… One does not have to be a cynic to discern a pattern here.