Asset Forfeiture: How The Police Can Take Everything You Own Without Charging You With A Crime

Seventy-two-year-old retired Michigan carpenter Thomas Williams was at home, minding his own business, on a November 2013 morning, when police wearing masks and camouflage broke down his door with a battering ram, according to the Detroit Free Press.

“We think you’re dealing marijuana.”

In fact, Williams was growing marijuana at the time — medical marijuana is legal in Michigan, and Williams had a card, allowing him to grow a limited number of plants for personal use.

The SWAT raid on Williams’ home turned up no evidence of any crimes, and he was not charged. That didn’t stop police from taking $11,000 in cash, his car, his gun, his TV, and even his cell phone — leaving an elderly man without a land line stranded in his home in a rural area in the winter. He was stranded for three days until a concerned neighbor stopped by to check on him.

Police are also trying to seize his home.

Williams joins the ever-growing list of victims of what is known as asset forfeiture — that is, laws which allow police to seize cash and property of people suspected of drug crimes. The key word here is “suspected”: you don’t have to actually be convicted of a crime, or even charged with one, in order to have your property seized in an asset forfeiture case.

Asset forfeiture, or civil forfeiture as it’s sometimes called, became a tool used in the expanding War on Drugs in the 1980s, according to Pasha Law. It was intended as a practical tool to help police fight drug dealers: seize dealers’ money and give it to the police to turn back around and fight drugs with the proceeds. It also makes something of a symbolic statement: take away the drug dealer’s most powerful weapon — his money — and throw it back in his face by using it against him.

That was the intention, anyway. Since Reagan amped up the Drug War in the 80s, asset forfeiture has become less of useful tool in preventing drug crime and more of a legally-spurious means of funneling the money and property of innocent people into the coffers of police departments across the country.

  • Anthony Smelley was driving along I-70 in Indiana in 2009, according to the Indianapolis Star, when police pulled him over for a minor traffic violation. After claiming that his story sounded “rehearsed,” a search of his car turned up $17,000 in cash, which Smelley claimed was his settlement from a car accident. The Indiana Highway Patrol said it was drug money, and they kept it.
  • William Davis and John Newmer­zhycky were driving through Iowa in 2013 when they were pulled over for a minor traffic violation, according to Reason. The professional poker players were carrying about $100,000 in winnings with them; trooper Justin Simmons determined that it was drug money, and it became the property of the Iowa State Police.
  • Christos Sourovelis of Philadelphia and his wife, Markella, are faced with the prospect of losing their house, according to CNN, all because their son is accused of selling $40 worth of heroin out of the home.

And getting your seized property back can be a nightmare all its own. If your property is seized in an asset forfeiture, you have to prove that you did not purchase your property with proceeds from criminal activity, and then sue to get it back. The process can take months if not years.

John Moore, for example, had co-signed on an auto loan for his son. In 2012, the son was pulled over by Indianapolis police for a minor traffic violation. A search of the car turned up oxycodone, marijuana, a digital scale, and methamphetamine, and the car became the property of the Indianapolis police. Mr. Moore, who lives in Virginia, became a defendant in a civil forfeiture case simply because his name was on the car’s title. At the risk of ruining his credit, Mr. Moore continued making payments “for several months” while the car sat in an Indianapolis impound lot and his case worked its way through the court.

“[My son] did wrong. He should go to jail. What does that have to do with the car? I just don’t get it.”

Despite the abuses of the system, police aren’t willing to let go of asset forfeiture. Col. Kriste Kibbey Etue of the Michigan State Police insists that asset forfeiture laws are necessary to keep drugs off the streets.

“Michigan’s asset forfeiture program saves taxpayers money and deprives drug criminals of cash and property. Michigan’s law enforcement community has done an outstanding job of stripping drug dealers of illicit gain and utilizing those proceeds to expand and enhance drug enforcement efforts to protect our citizens.”

A small number of politicians have begun to realize that asset forfeiture has become an abuse-prone contrivance that is sucking money out of innocent people under the guise of prosecuting the failing Drug War.

In January 2015, according to the Washington Post, Attorney General Eric Holder announced the most radical change to the Justice Department’s use of asset forfeiture since the Regan Era. A new policy essentially prohibits the Justice Department from assisting in carrying out civil forfeiture at the state and local level, and from receiving any money from those cases.

Though hyped by many on the Left as an end to asset forfeiture, the move was actually a small one that will have little to no appreciable affect on asset forfeiture at the state and local level, according to columnist Radley Balko. Still, it’s a step in the right direction.

But for those slogging their way through the courts, fighting to get their cash and property back all because somebody, somewhere, thought they might be connected to a drug transaction, the new federal guidelines offer little comfort.

The fact of the matter is, as long as the country continues to zealously prosecute a failed Drug War; and as long as police departments find themselves awash in money that is theirs for the taking as long as they claim it’s drug money, asset forfeiture is here to stay.

[Image courtesy of: Reason]