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Are Innocent Citizens at Risk of Police Seizure of Their Cash, Cars and Homes?

August 19, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Property seizure is a profitable practice for local law enforcement agencies, long used to deprive mobsters and drug kingpins. But the police can also take personal goods away from citizens who haven't been proven guilty of a crime. Ray Suarez talks to Sarah Stillman who investigated civil forfeiture for The New Yorker.
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TRANSCRIPT

JEFFREY BROWN: Next: a story about the increase in police seizures of personal property, in the name of fighting crime.

Ray Suarez has our look.

It’s called civil forfeiture. The seizures have long been a tool in the fight against illegal drugs. And the program is an enormous moneymaker for local police departments.

New Yorker staff writer Sarah Stillman wrote a lengthy and revealing report for the magazine, and joins me now.

And, Sarah, let’s start at the beginning.

What is civil forfeiture? How does it work?

SARAH STILLMAN, The New Yorker: Well, most people are familiar with this idea of criminal forfeiture.

And that’s a widely supported notion that, if you’re profiting from crime — let’s say you’re a big drug kingpin — and you have bought your Malibu mansion and your Gulfstream jet with the proceeds of your crime, then those things will be taken away from you. And that make a lot of sense again to people.

But many folks are unfamiliar with the idea of civil forfeiture, which is actually a case brought against, directly against a piece a property, where you don’t need to be proven guilty of a crime for your goods to be taken away. And many of the conventional protections that you have under the criminal process are not afforded to you in a civil forfeiture case.

RAY SUAREZ: So, there’s no trial. There’s no requirement to provide evidence to prove the state’s suspicion. They just take your stuff.

SARAH STILLMAN: Exactly.

And you don’t even have the right to a lawyer. So, conventionally, if you’re facing the loss of your home or the loss of your car or cash, normally, at the very least, you would have someone who is able to represent you in these claims.

In places like Washington, D.C., you have to even pay $2,500 simply for the right to contest the case. And you’re, again, not entitled to representation when you do that. So it can be a very costly process and also just a very confusing, arduous process to figure out, how do you contest?

RAY SUAREZ: People are probably sitting at home and saying, but how could this happen? Doesn’t the Constitution forbid the government seizing your property without due process?

SARAH STILLMAN: Right.

And there are a lot of constitutional arguments that have been — that have gone on around this issue. And people have argued, for instance, the Eighth Amendment protects against excessive fees — or excessive fines for things like a case I looked at in Philadelphia where a family lost their home, a couple, an elderly couple.

The man was struggling with cancer. And it was found that his son had allegedly sold $20 worth of pot on the porch to a confidential informant. And the son has still not actually been convicted of any crime, but yet the parents, the homeowners are facing the potential loss of their home.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, people probably remember, probably recall seeing news conferences where very proud local law enforcement show off cars, show off boats, show off houses, the things that they have gotten as the fruits of investigations.

When did this become a common tool in use by police departments across the country?

SARAH STILLMAN: Well, it’s interesting, because, actually, civil forfeiture has its origins at the very, very beginning of our country, when they needed a way to go after pirates who had these vessels that the owner may be all the way in Europe, so let’s just go after the ship if we can’t get the guy who owns the ship, which made sense.

But it really fell by the wayside pretty soon thereafter. And not until the one drugs took off in the ’80s in kind of the Reagan years did it become common for police — legislation was written that allowed police to actually in many cases keep the proceeds that they got, the things you mentioned, and actually use them, funnel them back into crime fighting.

RAY SUAREZ: Now, your report indicated that it’s pretty hard if you’re caught in this, if you’re a citizen who has been stopped by a county sheriff or something, to fight back, to get your property, your cash back from a law enforcement agency.

SARAH STILLMAN: Yes.

And I think one thing that is important to emphasize is that these laws vary tremendously from state to state, so, in many places, again, with things like not being entitled to a lawyer and also with the idea that often you have maybe 20 days to contest or 30 days to contest. And if you can’t figure out how to do so in that time period, your goods are automatically seized.

So many people lose them simply by default.

RAY SUAREZ: So, the clock is ticking from the moment they find cash in your glove compartment or a TV in your trunk. And often these are, your reporting indicates, either poor or working-class people with no access to attorneys, under-banked or unbanked. They’re not people who know how to sophisticatedly work the system.

SARAH STILLMAN: Yes.

That was a big sort of surprise for me looking at this, is that these laws were really created, again, to go after kingpins or mafia people or Wall Street con men who, in those cases, you’re able to actually take the proceeds of crime and give them in some cases back to victims, which is again a very kind of appealing idea.

Instead, often, I was seeing cases of like very petty drug crimes or cases where people were actually proven to have committed any crime at all, but simply had cash that they claimed was going to maybe buy a used car or they were paid in cash for whatever reason, and simply were pulled over on the side of the street, in some cases were even told — in a case I mentioned in Tenaha, Tx., the main case I write about in The New Yorker, they were actually told — some couples were told, we will either let you — we will either take your money and you can go on down the road if you sign away your rights to it, or we will press money laundering charges and take your kids away from you and put them into child protective services.

RAY SUAREZ: Has anybody successfully fought back against the seizure of their property without trial and without due process?

SARAH STILLMAN: Absolutely.

And that — one of the surprising things is actually that when people did get it together to push back, often, the cases were just dropped. And it sort of indicated this was really often preying upon people who didn’t know how to fight back or didn’t have the resources to or had reasons to be scared to.

And in cases where people really did bring a case, including in Tenaha after this happened to hundreds — perhaps even 1,000 were stopped in this drug interdiction program there — it’s a very small town. It’s mostly people who were driving through in rental cars from out of state. They actually brought a successful — or they had a settlement in class action lawsuit recently.

RAY SUAREZ: A very interesting read.

Sarah Stillman from The New Yorker, thanks a lot.

SARAH STILLMAN: Thanks for having me on the show.