Home Columns Yes, it’s legal and can happen to anyone
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Yes, it’s legal and can happen to anyone

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Paul Richardson
By Paul Richardson

In jolly old England, Robin Hood stole from the rich to give to the poor.

In modern-day America, greedy government goons steal from the innocent to give to the corrupt under court sanctioned schemes called “civil asset forfeiture.”

In fact, according to The Washington Post, “law enforcement took more stuff from people in 2016 than burglars did.”

In a nutshell, here’s how the whole ugly (completely legitimate) business works.

First, government agents (usually some law enforcement agency) uses a broad array of tactics to profile, identify, target and arrange to encounter (in a traffic stop, on a train, in an airport, in public, or on private property) those individuals who might be traveling with a significant amount of cash or possess property of value. Second, these government agents, empowered by the courts and the legislatures, seize private property (cash, jewelry, cars, homes and other valuables) they “suspect” may be connected to criminal activity.

Then, and here’s the kicker, whether or not any crime is actually proven to have taken place, without any charges being levied against the property owner, or any real due process afforded the unlucky victim, the property is forfeited to the government, which often divvies it up with the local police who helped with the initial seizure.

It’s a new, twisted form of guilt by association.

Only it’s not the citizenry being accused of wrongdoing, just their money.

What this adds up to is a paradigm in which Americans no longer have to be guilty to be stripped of their property, rights and liberties. All you have to be is in possession of something the government wants.

Motorists have been particularly vulnerable to this modern-day form of highway robbery.

Civil forfeiture laws represent one of the most serious assaults on private property rights in the nation today. Under civil forfeiture, police and prosecutors can seize your car or other property, sell it and use the proceeds to fund agency budgets—all without so much as charging you with a crime. Unlike criminal forfeiture, where property is taken after its owner has been found guilty in a court of law, with civil forfeiture, owners need not be charged with or convicted of a crime to lose homes, cars, cash or other property. Americans are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but civil forfeiture turns that principle on its head. With civil forfeiture, your property is guilty until you prove it “innocent.”

Police in some jurisdictions have run forfeiture operations that would be difficult to distinguish from criminal shakedowns. Police can pull motorists over, find some amount of cash or other property of value, claim some vague connection to illegal drug activity and then present the motorists with a choice: If they hand over the property, they can be on their way. Otherwise, they face arrest, seizure of property, a drug charge, a probable night in jail, the hassle of multiple return trips to the state or city where they were pulled over, and the cost of hiring a lawyer to fight both the seizure and the criminal charge. It isn’t hard to see why even an innocent motorist would opt to simply hand over the cash and move on

For instance, police confiscated $201,000 in cash from Lisa Leonard because the money, which Leonard planned to use to buy a house for her son, was being transported on a public highway known to be used by drug traffickers. Despite the fact that Leonard was innocent of wrongdoing, with no criminal record, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the theft on a technicality.

Unsurprisingly, these asset forfeiture scams have become so profitable for the government that they have expanded their reach beyond the nation’s highways.

According to USA Today, the U.S. Department of Justice received $2.01 billion in forfeited items in 2013, and since 2008 local and state law enforcement nationwide has raked in some $3 billion in forfeitures through the federal “equitable sharing” program.

So now it’s not just drivers who have to worry about getting the shakedown. Any American unwise enough to travel with significant amounts of cash is fair game for the government pickpockets.
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