Trump’s Justice Department Wants to Keep Taking People’s Property

on Jul28

28 July 2017 | 2:57 pm

The US Justice Department said it intends to keep taking people’s property in a controversial program called asset forfeiture that will allow police to seize cash and property from criminal suspects and use the ill-got loot.

However, more people are questioning a program that allows the police to take possessions such as cars and money without indictments or evidence a crime has been committed.

It is also difficult for those proven not guilty to reclaim their confiscated property.

One mechanic told me his son who is a cop is a part of a gang crimes unit here that practices asset forfeiture all the time when they stop drug suspects and take their property. He said his son drives a “very expensive car” that no rookie cop could afford, but he tells his father he can’t tell him about his work because it’s dangerous.

The government claims in its dubious war on drugs that these seizures help weaken criminal organizations by taking away their funding, and help funds their departments.

Even though 24 states have passed laws limiting the practice because it goes against the Constitutional right to private property, local law enforcement get around the restrictions by giving the seized assets to the federal government instead of returning them to their owners. This practice called adoption has been used to seize almost $1 billion in assets over the last decade, CBS News reported.

The Obama administration had restricted the practice of police seizing property without the owner being charged with a crime until this recent Justice Department announcement.

In Illinois there is House Bill 303 sitting on the governor’s desk to be signed into law that is designed to reform asset forfeiture. While the bill does not take out the profit motive for the police to be rewarded for confiscating criminals’ property, it does provide transparency by requiring that the police list all assets seized on a website so that anyone can access it, said Ben Ruddell, the ACLU’s Criminal Justice Reform Project director.

“States like Illinois are now recognizing that civil forfeiture to seize criminal property has evolved into something much more insidious,” Ruddell told Chicago News.

In 2009 Anthony Smelley, an Indiana resident who won $50,000 in a car accident settlement, was carrying about $17K of that in cash in his car when he got pulled over. Even though the cops found no drugs and he showed documentation proving where he got the money from, they still took his money, making up the ridiculous claim that he could have used the cash to buy drugs in the future.

And it can take months or even years for the innocent to prove their case and recover their property.

The police can also pull over someone transporting drugs and seize the car that belongs to a family member who is innocent. The owner of the vehicle would then have to pay court fees, a cash bond and other penalties and wait for some time before they can get their car back.

“Someone can be found not guilty and still lose their property permanently,” Ruddell said by phone.

The Illinois reform bill makes the government prove the person they seize property from is guilty, rather than the current situation of guilty until proven innocent, Ruddell said.

Ruddell said Illinois law enforcement received about $30 million in asset forfeiture this past year, although the police currently do not have to report what they seize. The cops in Chicago get to keep about 60% of whatever assets they claimed they seized.

The national program has seized about $29 billion in cash and assets in the past decade. But this policy has earned criticism from both democrats and civil libertarians who say such tactics resulted in “policing for profit.”

Congress is working currently on three federal bills to reform the program and Republican senators like Rand Paul have criticized the Justice Department’s new direction on civil asset forfeiture.

Congress is weighing several options. The most basic reform is similar to what Illinois wants which is to allow seizures only after conviction, however, proceeds would not go to local police departments, but into the US Treasury’s general fund.

The civil asset forfeiture program has its roots in 17th-century maritime law, with pirates and smugglers as the original targets. However, in 1984 Congress revived this practice in the war on drugs. The intent was to hobble drug kingpins by seizing illegal profits, even without a warrant. Seizures exploded by 4,667 percent between 1986 and 2014, going from $93.7 million to $4.5 billion, CSM reported.

By Jim Vail


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