Friday, August 9, 2013

New Yorker Article on Asset Forfeiture Abuse

The New Yorker Magazine has an terrific article about police abuse of civil forfeiture laws, which highlights the outrageous and unconstitutional police raid at the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit:

In the midst of festivities one evening in late May, 2008, forty-odd officers in black commando gear stormed the gallery and its rear patio, ordering the guests to the ground. Some in attendance thought that they were the victims of an armed robbery. One young woman who had fallen only to her knees told me that a masked figure screamed at her, “Bitch, you think you’re too pretty to get in the mud?” A boot from behind kicked her to the ground. The officers, including members of the Detroit Police Department’s vice squad and mobile tactical unit, placed the guests under arrest. According to police records, the gallery lacked proper city permits for after-hours dancing and drinking, and an old ordinance aimed at “blind pigs” (speakeasies) and other places of “illegal occupation” made it a crime to patronize such a place, knowingly or not.

After lining the guests on their knees before a “prisoner processing table” and searching them, the officers asked for everyone’s car keys. Then the raid team seized every vehicle it could find, even venturing to the driveway of a young man’s friend nearly a mile away to retrieve his car. Forty-four cars were taken to government-contracted lots.

Most of those detained had to pay more than a thousand dollars for the return of their cars; if payment wasn’t made promptly, the car would become city property.

Ilya Somin at Volokh piles on:

The idea that government can seize your property without ever having to prove that you committed a crime is deeply unjust, and creates dangerous perverse incentives for police, especially in cases where they or the local governments they work for get to keep the assets seized. The Texas jurisdiction discussed in Stillman’s article is particularly egregious, since it focuses its abusive behavior on out-of-town drivers who have little or no political leverage in the area, and face unusually high costs if they choose to contest the seizures.

A variety of reforms could help diminish asset forfeiture abuse. For example, police could be banned from keeping the proceeds, and state and local governments should give owners the right to contest seizures quickly and cheaply. In some states, current arrangements allow the authorities to hold forfeited property for many months without giving the owner any opportunity to challenge the seizure, thereby violating the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. Ultimately, however, the best solution is to abolish civil asset forfeiture completely.

Steve Clowney

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