Ending Highway Robbery by the State: An End to Civil Asset Forfeiture

The greatest threat to liberty throughout history has been the state. Humanity’s worst travesties are stories told about the abuses of governments who violate the inalienable rights they are charged with protecting. The indignation of the state in victimless crimes seeks only to confiscate and redistribute wealth only to favour those loyal to a crown or a party. Western civilization sought to resolve these issues sometimes through bloody conflict and some through legislation. Protecting this principle requires the effort of an informed citizenry that remains active in their society. In all of histories cases where this abusive course was reversed, this is the case.

The English Penal code sought to enforce the superiority of Anglican religion and the supreme sovereignty of the English crown over other faiths such as non-Anglican Protestantism and Catholicism. These laws sought to limit the influence, property and rights of English subjects with forfeitures, fines, and penalties. The Clarendon Code required all municipal officials to take Anglican Communion and reject Solemn League and Covenant. Other acts forbid the unlawful religious practice, forced required prayer books upon the people and the clergy, and forbade nonconformist ministers from associating with others. Many sought refuge outside England and those leaving the religious persecution left a wake of social upheaval. Some fled to the United States seeking freedom from this persecution. In 1688, the Glorious Revolution sought to relieve this tension through political violence and an overthrowing the king. Following the revolution, Parliament instituted the Bill of Rights in 1689 and this limited the powers of the crown while adding significant protections toward the subjects of the kingdom. The Bill of Rights in 1689 sought to liberalize religious tensions in the England toward an idea that retributive justice would have a punishment fitting the crime. This Bill of Rights in 1689 aimed to protect citizens from cruel and unusual punishment.

The Glorious Revolution and the overthrowing of the crown led to civil unrest in the American colonies who would not be successful in their revolt against English rule for a few more decades. In the wake of an overthrown crown, the cities of Boston and New York attempted to revolt against the local governor in a rebellion named after its instigator Leisler. For two years these cities remained independent and by 1691, the English crown reasserted its authority in the new world as Leisler was tried for treason. Leisler’s Rebellion left the colonies divided over the issue of independence in a manner that would remain unresolved until the American Revolutionary War in 1776. The establishment of the eighth amendment to the US Constitution echoed the sentiments of the English Bill of Rights of 1689 and was ratified in December of 1791.

During the American Civil War, a sheriff named Henry Plummer organized 100 men, mostly criminals, who stole from miners and travellers in a mining community in Montana [1]⁠. This was municipality-sanctioned theft and the people of Bannock, Montana decided that they were not going to stand for it [1]⁠. Since Plummer violated their rights and trust, a vigilante committee arrested, tried and hanged Plummer and 21 members of his posse [1]⁠. This form of vigilante justice is no longer practised. This thievery has been replaced with sanctioned theft by many municipalities in a process called Civil Asset Forfeiture.

Civil Asset Forfeiture allows towns to seize property believed to be involved in criminal activity. The owner of the property does not have to be found guilty of the crime because the proceedings charge the property and not the person. Police can seize just about anything of value without ever having to charge a person with a crime [2]⁠. Often these municipalities are betting that it will be easier to pay fines and fees rather than pursue this action in court.

Municipalities and those whose job it is to serve and protect abuse this process. Major newspapers and media outlets anecdotally report on the injustice of Civil Asset Forfeiture. The Washington Post reported that local governments acquire millions of dollars in revenue from this action [3]⁠. Journalist Jason Snead highlighted the abuse of this practice in Tenaha, Texas. Tenaha is an alleged hotbed for Civil Asset Forfeiture and became the target of a Department of Justice investigation in 2014 when he Snead reported that, “Tenaha police executed dozens of traffic stops in which vast sums of money and property were seized, though no criminal charges were filed against drivers or passengers,” [4]. Many of these traffic stops targeted black citizens [5]⁠. In another example reported by the Business Insider, George Reby drove through Putnam County in Tennessee where the Montery Police Department pulled him over. He wasn’t speeding and when the officer searched his car, the cop confiscated $22,000 in cash he had as an insurance adjuster [6]⁠. In another story, Jennifer Boatright was travelling through Texas on their way to a family gathering in Lyndon, Texas. Boatright alleges that the police confiscated their money during a routine traffic stop [7]⁠. Mandrel Stuart had $17,550 confiscated from him during a minor traffic stop in Fairfax, VA. He lost his business [8]⁠.

The Institute for Justice studied this issue at length and has given each state a graded rating [9]⁠. Only New Mexico received an ‘A’ letter grade in their study with North Carolina, Maine, Missouri, Indiana, and Wisconsin receiving ‘B’s [9]⁠. North Dakota a Massachusetts received the worst grade with a grade of ‘F’ [9]⁠. Dick Carpenter, the Director of Research at the Institute advocates that their study, “makes the case for reform, grading the civil forfeiture laws of each state and the federal government, documenting remarkable growth in forfeiture activity across the country, and highlighting a worrisome lack of transparency surrounding forfeiture activity and expenditures from forfeiture funds.” [9]⁠

The problem with this entire concept is that it deprives people of their property without regular due process– i.e. a conviction before a jury of your peers. The government in these instances takes property from citizens without a day in court and in this theft isn’t required to prove there was a victim or even that a crime was committed. Most egregious, however, is that there is no consequence for many of these municipalities who use this as a form of revenue generation.

Efforts to reform this in communities around the country have taken place as people are becoming aware of these abuses. The Institute for Justice filed a suite against the city of Philadelphia for the alleged abuses of Civil Asset Forfeiture in 2014 claiming that in 2011, Philadelphia’s District Attorney’s Office filed 6560 petitions to that sought asset forfeiture it believed was connected to a crime. The US Congress has two bills before it to address the issue: Senator Paul’s S.2644 and Representative Walberg’s H.R. 5212. Contact your Congressman and advocate this reform through the support of these two bills.

Sources:

[1] B. Benson, “Highway Robbery: Police have incentives to commit legalized highway robbery,” Foundation for Economic Education, 01-Jul-1993.

[2] “Civil Asset Forfeiture: 7 Things You Should Know,” The Heritage Foundation, 2015. [Online]. Available: http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2014/03/civil-asset-forfeiture-7-things-you-should-know. [Accessed: 28-Nov-2015].

[3] M. Sallah, R. O’Harrow, S. Rich, and G. Silverman, “Stop and Seize,” The Washington Post, 2015.

[4] J. Snead, “License, Registration—and All Your Valuables, Please,” The Daily Signal, 2014.

[5] H. Witt, “Highway robbery? Texas police seize black motorists’ cash, cars,” Chicago Tribune, 10-Mar-2009.

[6] A. Biles, “HIGHWAY ROBBERY: Civil Forfeiture Allows Police To Extort Thousands From Innocent Americans,” The Business Insider, 22-May-2012.

[7] J. Friedman, Highway Robbery. United States: Comedy Central, 2014.

[8] G. Leef, “Time For Civil Asset Forfeiture Laws To Meet The Same Fate As Jim Crow,” Forbes, 12-Sep-2014.

[9] D. M. Carpenter, L. Knepper, A. C. Erickson, and J. McDonald, “Policing For Profit,” Institute for Justice, 2015. [Online]. Available: http://ij.org/report/policing-for-profit/. [Accessed: 01-Dec-2015].

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