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Archive for the ‘Asset Forfeiture’ Category

In the world of public policy, it’s very easy to make fun of politicians (especially Barack Obama, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren).

And there are plenty of jokes about certain issues in the public arena, particularly the IRS, but also gun control and Brexit. And I have entire pages dedicated to libertarian humor and communism/socialism humor.

But some topics are so grim that’s it’s not easy to laugh about them. There’s nothing funny about the horror of Venezuela, for instance, though there are examples of dark humor from that unfortunate nation.

Another topic that doesn’t lend itself to laughs is the horrid practice of civil asset forfeiture. I’ve shared many nauseating stories about how governments literally steal property from people who have not been convicted of crimes (or, in many cases, have not even been accused of any crime).

Here’s the latest absurd example, this time from Michigan.

Nearly 400 people in Wayne County who were never charged with a crime still lost property to law enforcement agencies last year through a legal procedure called civil asset forfeiture… Altogether, there were 736 asset forfeiture proceedings in Michigan in 2017 during which someone lost property to the government despite never being charged with any crime; this happened 380 times in Wayne County. …Jarrett Skorup of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, who co-authored a recent report on civil forfeiture, said…it’s likely that these forfeitures disproportionately affected low-income individuals, who are less able to afford an attorney or navigate the legal system to reclaim their property. Revenue obtained from forfeited property typically goes to the agency that seized the property.

Yes, you read correctly. The agency that steals the property gets to keep the money, which is why the disgusting practice of civil asset forfeiture is sometimes known as “policing for profit.”

If this sounds like the kind of behavior you’d find in a third-world banana republic, you’re right.

Anyhow, is there any way we can find mirth and amusement in this reprehensible practice?

Actually, courtesy of libertarian Reddit, there is.

Kudos to the clever person who left this comment. Maybe the bureaucrats finally understand what it feels like to have property arbitrarily seized.

I’m not quite ready to applaud the actual thief, however, since a speed trailer only notifies people how fast they’re traveling.

If that person wants my praise, go after speed-trap cameras like this hero.

P.S. There is an example of money-laundering humor, and it features a former President.

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I don’t think I’ll ever stray from libertarianism. But if I ever get tempted by the siren song of statism, I’ll bolster my resistance by reminding myself of how people have been victimized by venal government.

And if that doesn’t get my libertarian blood boiling, I’ll revisit some of my columns on so-called civil asset forfeiture. This is the policy that allows the government to steal your money.

I’m not joking. Bureaucrats can take your money (or property) simply by concocting a claim that it may have been associated with criminal activity.

They can grab your cash even though you haven’t been convicted. Heck, they don’t even need to arrest you.

Let’s look at some new examples of this odious practice. We’ll start with this video clip from a local news station in Sacramento, California.

And here’s another example from West Virginia, as reported by the Charleston Gazette-Mail.

A West Virginia State Police trooper issued Dimitrios Patlias a warning for failing to drive within his lane, just before seizing more than $10,000 in cash from him and his wife. …The trooper pulled them over, Smith said in an interview, …accusing them of smuggling cigarettes, to having drugs in the car, to gift card fraud. After searching the car, their persons, and Smith’s purse, the trooper let them go with a uniform warning citation. However, he also took the $10,478 in cash, the 78 “gift cards” in the car, and Patlias’ smartphone, according to a property disposition report. …Patlias and Smith wound up returning to their home in Egg Harbor City, New Jersey, stripped of all their cash but $2, without ever having been charged with a crime. …The seizure was part of a practice known as civil asset forfeiture, where law enforcement officers have the right to lay claim to property they argue was used in the commission of certain crimes. …the law seems to incentivize bad behavior from otherwise good police officers.“To me, this law, now that I’ve learned of it, it turns police officers into dishonest crooks,” she said. “I feel like I was in a movie.”

Yes, indeed, the cop was a crook in this instance. That’s because civil asset forfeiture creates a horrible incentive called “policing for profit.”

Efforts to curtail this disgusting tactic have not been successful in West Virginia.

In February, the state House Judiciary Committee considered a bill that would tie civil asset forfeiture to its respective criminal proceeding, i.e., if you’re acquitted criminally, the seized property cannot be forfeited. The bill died in committee.

But this story does have a happy ending. When this example of theft-by-government began to get publicity, the bureaucrats decided to return everything they stole.

After the Gazette-Mail reached out to the state police Monday with inquiries about the seizure, and after weeks of Smith calling police, the Jefferson County prosecuting attorney and local politicians, Smith said an officer returned her and Patlias’ possessions in full Thursday evening.

Speaking of good news, some governments around the country are curtailing this venal practice.

And the Utah Supreme Court also is taking a jaundiced look at civil asset forfeiture, even if only for procedural reasons.

The Utah Supreme Court has sided with a man pulled over in a traffic stop where police seized more than $500,000. In a unanimous ruling published Wednesday, the state’s top court ordered a lower court to reconsider who has jurisdiction over the money seized when Kyle Savely was stopped in a 2016 traffic stop. A drug dog alerted to the presence of narcotics, but none were found. Instead, a Utah Highway Patrol trooper found cash and seized it despite never charging Savely with any drug crime. …The libertarian-leaning think tank Libertas Institute, which jumped into the case, praised the ruling. They argued that state and federal agencies often split seized money. “The public is rightly outraged by laws that allow the government to take property from people not charged with a crime, as was the case here. It’s even worse when state laws designed to protect a property owner’s rights are not followed by state agencies, which is why we’re very pleased to see the state’s highest court unanimously holding them accountable,” Libertas Institute President Connor Boyack said in a statement.

What we really need, though, is for the Supreme Court to decide whether governments have the right to steal.

And that’s exactly what may soon happen, according to Jibran Khan of National Review.

Did you know that, in most states, the police can take your money and property without even charging you with a crime? Mundane actions such as having cash on hand have been cited as grounds for seizure, as a young man moving to Los Angeles to start a business discovered when his life savings were seized. He wasn’t detained, or charged with any crime — but he was left with nothing when the Drug Enforcement Agency took his cash. In any other situation, we would label this theft… Stories abound of abusive seizures justified under civil forfeiture. …A new Supreme Court case, however, might change that. …Justice Thomas has hoped for a civil-forfeiture case to come before the Supreme Court, so that this practice, which he views as incompatible with the due-process clause, can be analyzed on constitutional grounds. When it considers Timbs v. Indiana later this year, the Court will be able to do just that.

Kudos to Clarence Thomas for wanting to protect our rights.

If you need more evidence, Khan goes on the summarize why civil asset forfeiture is so reprehensible.

The system incentivizes policing for profit, rather than for public safety. The way that seized money is spent is just as disgraceful as the takings themselves. Departments have used forfeiture funds to buy Mercedes-Benzes, BMWs, Corvettes, Hawaiian vacations, and ski trips — just to list a few. They have also used these funds to buy military equipment, which has contributed to the dissolution of Sir Robert Peel’s concept of good policing that held the police should be well-integrated with the public rather than seeing itself as a military force. It’s no surprise that Brad Cates, who headed up asset forfeiture at the Department of Justice in the 1980s, describes it as “a free-floating slush fund.” The taking of property from citizens who are not charged with crimes to fund lavish lifestyles for government officials sounds like something out of the most dysfunctional Third World regimes. It’s heartening to see that the Supreme Court will hear the case. The practice is an affront to both constitutional and cultural norms, and has empowered law enforcement to engage in what would be considered criminality by any other measure.

Amen.

By the way, Brad Cates is one of two former officials who were in charge of asset forfeiture who now reject the procedure.

Sadly, this is an issue where Trump and his team are definitely on the wrong side.

P.S. Defenders of civil asset forfeiture sometimes tell me that I shouldn’t get upset because many of the people who lose their property are criminals.

I’m willing to acknowledge that some of these folks may not be model citizens, but I make two basic points.

  1. Our Constitution has a presumption of innocence, so people shouldn’t be punished unless found guilty by a jury of their peers. In other words, I side with the Founding Fathers rather than Jeff Sessions.
  2. Something shouldn’t be against the law if there isn’t a victim. This is why asset forfeiture laws, just like drug laws and money-laundering laws, are misguided and should be repealed.

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On several occasions, I’ve shared horror stories of government brutality and asserted that all decent people should be libertarians.

If you still are not convinced, today we’re going to look at seven stories about so-called civil asset forfeiture, which is a sanitized term. Most people call it stealing.

Or “policing for profit.”

Let’s look at how this third-world scam operates, starting with a disgusting example of asset forfeiture from Reason.

Rustem Kazazi, an American citizen, was just trying to get on a plane to return to his native Albania last October, from Cleveland Hopkins International Airport. He was initially flying to Newark where he’d catch a connection to Albania. …Given facts about the Albanian banking and finance system and the advantages of cash there, he chose to turn his life savings into U.S. dollars and bring them with him to cover expenses related to the above house needs and his long stay rather than deal with bank transfers… Kazazi ran his carry-on luggage through the x-ray machine, like we all must. In that luggage was his life savings in cash, $58,100. There was zero attempt to be clandestine or smuggle-y about it. It was divided into three labeled and marked stacks of $100 bills, all in one envelope with $58,100 written on the outside.

Here’s how despicable bureaucrats reacted.

TSA agents noticed the money. …They called Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) on Kazazi, who took him off to a private room to grill him, as well as strip him naked… They kept his money, without telling him why, then tried to get him to just get on his flight without it. The receipt they handed him made no reference to the specific amount they’d confiscated. When he refused initially to just go on with his day as if he hadn’t just suffered a horrible crime, they escorted him out of the airport. …In December CBP finally formally informed him via a “Notice of Seizure” that they’d taken $57,330 from him, $770 less than he insists was actually taken. The Kazazis filed all the officially required forms and notices to proceed with trying to get their money back… CBP agents tried to finagle the Kazazis into withdrawing their demand for federal court action, but failed.

The good news is that the invaluable Institute for Justice has intervened.

Kazazi and his family today filed a formal motion for return of property…with the assistance of consistent civil-forfeiture-justice fighters from the Institute for Justice… Let’s hope the courts do the right, and legal, thing, demand CBP obey the law and return the stolen money.

And here’s a nauseating example of theft-by-government from Texas.

For nearly a decade, Anthonia Nwaorie dreamed of starting a medical clinic in her hometown in Southern Nigeria. Last October, the 59-year-old nurse was boarding a plane in Houston with medical equipment, supplies, and about $41,000 in cash — which had taken her years to save — when Customs and Border Protection officials stopped her. …Nwaorie said she was detained for hours. She missed her flight to Nigeria and the customs officers seized all her money. …CBP took the money because Nwaorie, a U.S. citizen since 1994 who lives in Katy, had not declared that she was taking more than $10,000 out of the country — a technical requirement that her lawyers say is not well-publicized…six months after her money was taken, Nwaorie has not been charged with a crime.

Once again, the great people at IJ are involved.

Lawyers at the Institute for Justice, an Arlington, Virginia-based public interest law firm, say her case demonstrates just how abusive the practice of civil forfeiture — which allows the government to take property that is believed to be tied to a crime — can be. ….the Institute for Justice filed a class-action lawsuit against the agency on Nwaorie’s behalf, demanding that CBP return her money without forcing her to sign any written agreement. They’re also asking a federal court in Houston to void all such agreements that might have been signed by others trying to get seized property back.

George Will opined about another reprehensible example from Texas.

On Sept. 21, 2015, Serrano drove to the Eagle Pass, Tex., border crossing, intending to try to interest a Mexican cousin in expanding his solar panel installation business in the United States. …they searched his truck — this was unusual for a vehicle leaving the country — and one agent said, “We got him!” …Having found five .380-caliber bullets in the truck’s center console — he has a concealed-carry permit but had no weapon with him — they handcuffed him and seized his truck under civil forfeiture, saying it had been used to transport “munitions of war.”

The heroes at IJ are on the case.

Assisted by litigators from the Institute for Justice (IJ), whose appearance on the West Texas horizon probably panicked the government into pretending to be law-abiding, Serrano wants to make the government less larcenous and more constitutional when it is enriching itself through civil forfeiture. …Serrano is suing for restitution but also seeking a class-action judgment on behalf of others who have been similarly mistreated. …Robert Everett Johnson is one of the IJ lawyers… Johnson says: “Imagine being detained at an airport checkpoint because you innocently forgot to take a tube of toothpaste out of your luggage. But rather than asking you to throw it out or put it in a plastic bag, the TSA agents told you they were seizing all of your luggage, including the toothpaste tube.” That happened to Serrano at the hands of a government — the one north of the border — that felt free to say, “You have no rights here.”

Here’s an example of this despicable practice from Wyoming.

Phil Parhamovich…had spent years restoring and selling houses, cars, and musical instruments, often clocking 12-hour workdays, to save up more than $91,000. And now it was all going to pay off: He would buy a music studio in Madison, Wisconsin… Then came the police stop… By the time it was over, police in Wyoming would take all of Parhamovich’s money — the full $91,800. Parhamovich, who has no criminal record, was not accused of or charged with a serious crime; he only got a $25 ticket for improperly wearing his seat belt and a warning for “lane use.” …state officials said they consider the cash “abandoned.” The state has even moved to forfeiture the money without notifying Parhamovich of the relevant court hearing until after it happened.

You won’t be surprised to learn who got involved to protect Parhamovich’s rights.

According to Parhamovich and his attorneys with the advocacy group, the Institute for Justice, this is another classic example of policing for profit and the problems it causes. Police initiated the stop for a minor traffic violation, but quickly escalated it further and further until they took a man’s life savings — all to use that money for their own law enforcement purposes.

This story has a happy ending (except for the fact that the cop isn’t in jail for stealing).

Wyoming lawmakers, citing this story, have now banned the roadside waivers that police used to wrongly take Phil Parhamovich’s $91,800. Previously, Parhamovich…got…his money back during a court hearing.

The IRS also participates in this thuggish racket, as reported by the Washington Post.

Oh Suk Kwon, who left South Korea for America in 1976, served as a fleet mechanic in the U.S. Army. After four years in the military, decades of working in an electrical plant and as an auto mechanic, after raising the kids and seeing them off to their adult lives, Kwon finally bought a gas station in Ellicott City in 2007. It meant everything to him. Just a few years after he opened it, zealous government investigators…seized all of the station’s money on a hunch — and wiped the family out. No, they weren’t money launderers or terrorists or mobsters or tax evaders. The government found no evidence of criminal activity. …the gas station went under, and Kwon’s wife died amid the stress of it all…the agency won’t give Kwon his money back. …He’s heartbroken that the country he loves is treating him this way.

The story has additional examples.

…fervent investigations targeted scores of small businesses in Maryland. The best known of these was South Mountain Creamery… the creamery was accused of structuring — farmer Randy Sowers also said his bank teller told him to keep the deposits under $10,000 to cut paperwork — the farm’s entire operating budget was seized. …The government eventually found out that the cows weren’t drug mules and the chickens weren’t gangsters and allowed Sowers to sign a settlement agreement to get back half of about $60,000 that the IRS took. Sowers did it because he needed that money to keep the farm going. Another Maryland farmer, Calvin Taylor, had about $90,000 seized in 2011 after the government snagged him in a similar investigation. He couldn’t take the time to fight the charge, either, and agreed to a settlement where the government returned about $41,000.

Once again, the IJ people are fighting to protect people from rapacious government.

The farmers didn’t walk away from the fight. Backed by the libertarian Institute for Justice, Sowers, Taylor and others testified before Congress, petitioned and fought for three years to get their cash back.

The awful thugs at the IRS also stole money in Connecticut.

David Vocatura watched $68,000 disappear. He was at his family’s bakery in Norwich, Connecticut, when a squad of armed IRS agents filed into the store. The agents wanted to know if Vocatura and his brother Larry were trafficking drugs or running a prostitution ring. The brothers had no idea what they were talking about. …the IRS refused to believe Vocatura’s Bakery was operating on the up and up. Agents said the business raised red flags because of a series of cash deposits in sums under $10,000, the amount at which banks are required to report transactions to the federal government. …The agents had no evidence of other wrongdoing, but thanks to a controversial law enforcement tool known as civil asset forfeiture, they didn’t need any to seize every penny in the Vocaturas’ bank account… The IRS has…[been] subjecting David, 53, and his brother Larry, 69, to a series of increasingly aggressive legal maneuvers — including threats of significant prison time and additional fines — in an attempt to strong-arm them into permanently forfeiting their assets.

Naturally, IJ is riding to the rescue.

…the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm, filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court for the District of Connecticut on behalf of Vocatura’s Bakery, demanding that the IRS promptly return their money. …Hours after the suit was filed, the IRS said it would finally give the Vocaturas their money back.

But the jackboots in government are vindictively going after the family.

Peter S. Jongbloed, assistant U.S. attorney for the District of Connecticut, served the Vocaturas a grand jury subpoena calling for them to turn over every financial record from the six years between March 2007 and April 2013, so the agency could finally begin investigating the business’s tax and regulatory compliance. …“At this point, the government is in so deep, they’ve put these guys through three years of hell — and held onto their money for three years — and so they feel like they need to justify it,” said Robert Everett Johnson, an attorney for the Institute for Justice who is representing the Vocaturas. “So now they’re going to conduct this investigation into the bakery in some effort to try to find something that will make it look like they were doing the right thing all along.”

Let’s review one final example of banana-republic law enforcement, this time from Alabama.

The morning of June 29, 2010, began much like any other at FAR Computers in Ensley. Frank Ranelli, who has owned the computer repair business for more than two decades, was doing some paperwork in his windowless office when he heard loud banging on the front door. When he answered it, he was unaware that about 20 officers with the Homewood and Mountain Brook police departments were surrounding his store, some wearing flak jackets and carrying assault rifles. Within moments, a Homewood police sergeant had declared a room full of customers’ computers, merchandise and other items “stolen goods,” Ranelli recalled. …The police proceeded to confiscate more than 130 computers – most of which were customers’ units waiting to be repaired, though some were for sale – as well as the company’s business servers and workstations and even receipts and checkbooks. …Nothing ever came of the case. The single charge of receiving stolen goods was dismissed after Ranelli demonstrated that he had followed proper protocol in purchasing the sole laptop computer he was accused of receiving illegally. Yet none of the property seized by police that summer morning more than seven years ago has been returned to him.

The article references the stellar work of IJ.

Alabama’s laws, however, still provide the state’s citizens with few protections from the practices, earning the state a “D- for its civil asset forfeiture laws” in a November 2015 report by the Institute for Justice, a Virginia nonprofit advocacy law firm. Alabama laws stack the deck against victims of asset forfeiture by establishing a “low bar to forfeit” and not requiring a conviction to do so; offering “limited protections for innocent third-party property owners”; and letting “100% of forfeiture proceeds go to law enforcement,” the report stated. …In a time of increasingly tight budgets for many law enforcement agencies, seizing property offers an opportunity for them to increase revenue without politicians having to raise taxes.

The good news (relatively speaking) is that some states are trying to curtail this evil practice.

The bad news is that cops in some states have figured out how to steal regardless.

In theory, New Hampshire has reformed its asset forfeiture laws. The state passed a bill in June 2016 to keep police from seizing and keeping people’s property unless those people have been convicted of a crime. And yet New Hampshire Public Radio reports this week that the state’s cops are still trying to keep stuff seized from people who have been accused but not actually convicting of criminal behavior. …when the reforms were passed…there was a big loophole. The U.S. Justice Department’s “Equitable Sharing” program allows local law enforcement agencies to partner with the feds for busts, then funnel the forfeiture through the looser federal program, which doesn’t require convictions, back into the local police budgets. Doing this allows them to skirt any state-level restrictions on asset forfeiture.

In other states, the establishment is going nuts trying to preserve their shady scam.

…a local prosecutor and police officer say the state will be welcoming violent drug cartels if a Republican lawmaker gets his way. State Sen. Kyle Loveless has been trying to muster support this year for a bill that would reform a controversial law enforcement tool known as civil asset forfeiture. …Loveless sees this as a fundamental violation of people’s rights to due process and property and says the lax standards have gotten innocent people in Oklahoma caught in the civil asset forfeiture net. On Thursday, he sparred with Tulsa County District Attorney Steve Kunzweiler and Eric Dalgleish, a major at the Tulsa Police Department, over the merits of his bill to require a criminal conviction to permanently take someone’s property. …Kunzweiler, the district attorney, said the extra level of protection was unnecessary and that raising the bar for forfeiture would effectively roll out a welcome mat to ruthless drug traffickers from Mexico. …Dalgleish later said that cartels were keeping a close eye on Loveless’ legislation and even lobbying for its passage.

Shame on Kunzweiler and Dagleish. What reckless and dishonest demagoguery.

And three cheers for Sen. Loveless, who deserves a lot of love for putting the principles of the Constitution first.

Sadly, the Trump Administration is on the side of theft-by-government, which is especially disappointing since there was a small move in the right direction during the Obama years.

P.S. Just like intrusive and ineffective money-laundering laws, wretched asset forfeiture laws are largely the result of the foolish War on Drugs. One bad policy generates another bad policy. Lather, rinse, repeat.

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I periodically list people who have suffered horrible abuse because of despicable actions by government. At some point, I’ll have to create a special page to memorialize these victims. Something like the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame or Moocher Hall of Fame, though I haven’t figured out a good name (“Victims of Government Thuggery Hall of Fame” is too wordy).

Anyhow, many of these unfortunate people (the Dehko family, Carole Hinders, Joseph Rivers, and Thomas Williams) have something in common. They are victims of theft. But they can’t call law enforcement because their money and property was stolen by the government.

Such theft is enabled by “civil asset forfeiture” and we can now add Gerardo Serrano to the list of victims. The Washington Post has the disgusting story of what happened.

On Sept. 21, 2015, Gerardo Serrano was driving from his home in Kentucky to Piedras Negras, Mexico, when his truck was searched by U.S. Customs and Border Protection agents at Texas’s Eagle Pass border crossing. After finding a small ammunition clip, the agents took Serrano’s truck from him. Two years later, Customs hasn’t charged Serrano with a crime, and they haven’t given his truck back either.

The bureaucrats could take his truck because Civil asset forfeiture basically gives bureaucrats a license to steal. I’m not joking, though I wish I was.

Customs seized the truck under the laws of civil asset forfeiture, which allow authorities to take cash and property from citizens upon suspicion of criminal wrongdoing. Because it happens under civil law, no criminal conviction — or even criminal charge — is necessary for authorities to take property they believe is connected to a crime.

That’s bad enough. But it gets even worse when you read about what happened to Serrano.

In September 2015, Serrano drove his new Ford F-250 pickup from his home in Kentucky to the Mexico border. He was going to visit a cousin he hadn’t seen in many years. He snapped a few photos with his phone as he drove through the checkpoint, planning to upload them to Facebook, just as he says he had been doing throughout his whole trip, to share the experience with friends and family back home. That’s when the trouble started. One of Serrano’s photos shows two Customs agents looking in his direction, hands held up. According to his lawsuit, the agents objected to his taking photos.

Are these bureaucrats members of some primitive jungle tribe that believes a photograph steals their souls?

That would at least be a semi-rational explanation.

But if you read the rest of the story, they’re apparently petulant jerks (I had other words in mind, but this is a family-friendly site).

Those agents waved him over to the side of the road, on the U.S. side of the border, and demanded he hand over his phone. Serrano said “no.” Customs declined to say whether there’s a prohibition on photography at border crossings. …one of the agents unlocked Serrano’s door, unbuckled his seat belt, and yanked him out of the car. “I know I didn’t do anything wrong,” Serrano told The Post. “So I say ‘listen, you can’t yank me out like that, I’m an American, you can’t do that to me.’”The agent took his phone, and demanded Serrano give him the passcode. Serrano recalls he told the agent to “go get a warrant.”By this time, other agents had started searching his truck. “I said, ‘Hey listen I have rights, you’re violating my rights, you’re not supposed to do that kind of stuff,’” Serrano recounted. …“I’m sick of hearing about your rights,” the agent said, according to Serrano’s lawsuit. “You have no rights here.”Eventually, one of the agents searching the truck found an ammunition clip containing five .380-caliber bullets and yelled “we got him!,” according to the lawsuit. …Serrano had planned to take his pistol on the trip, but he left it home at the strong urging of his cousin, who explained the potential consequences of bringing it to Mexico. But he didn’t realize the extra ammunition clip, containing five .380 caliber rounds, was still in the center console of his truck.

The bureaucrats must have been trained in Venezuela.

At the crossing, the CBP agents put Serrano in handcuffs and continued to ask him to give up the passcode. “You go get that warrant,” Serrano says he told them. “I’ll wait for you in jail.” Serrano didn’t believe that any judge would grant a warrant to search a phone for taking pictures at the border. …The agents eventually placed Serrano in a locked cell without food, water or a toilet, Serrano says. Periodically someone would come in and ask for the passcode to his phone, he says. He refused every time.

The good news is that Mr. Serrano won, sort of.

Serrano says that after three hours, the agents told him he was free to go, returned his phone and said he wasn’t being arrested or charged with any crime. Serrano says he was elated.

The bad news is that the bureaucrats stole his truck.

But then, the agents handed him a document informing him that Customs was taking his truck and the ammunition clip. Those items were “subject of legally becoming the property of the Federal Government (forfeiture),” according to the document, because Serrano had failed to disclose the presence of the clip, making the truck a “conveyance of illegal exportation.” …Several weeks later he received a formal forfeiture notice from Customs, informing him that the government believed his truck was being used to transport “arms or munitions of war.” The notice gave him a number of options to pursue if he wanted his truck back.

Here’s the part that only be described as adding insult to injury.

One of the options was to make an “offer in compromise” — send Customs a check, and if they deemed the amount to be high enough, they would return his truck to him. “That’s like a shakedown,” Serrano said.

Fortunately, the great folks at the Institute for Justice are helping him challenge this horrific example of theft by government.

By the way, you may be thinking Serrano is some sort of thug, maybe a gang member from MS-13? I’ve had some defenders of civil asset forfeiture claim that the program is justifiable because it gives law enforcement leeway to go after bad guys that they can identify with their “sixth sense.” Was Serrano a bad guy who was nailed, albeit using a bad law?

Um…, not exactly.

Serrano is originally from Chicago but he’s lived on a farm in Kentucky for 20 years. A lifelong Republican, he unsuccessfully ran for a seat in Kentucky’s House of Representatives in 2014 on an explicitly pro-Second Amendment platform. He describes himself as a civil libertarian, and has a concealed carry permit for a Sig Sauer .380 pistol he carries for self-defense. “I believe in freedom,” he said in an interview with The Washington Post. “That’s what made this country great, is our freedom, our liberty.”

Serrano sounds like a great American. If he’s an immigrant, I want more just like him.

He understands what’s really doing on.

“It’s like there’s a war going on and they want to make war with my Bill of Rights,” he said. “How do they get away with this? How could this happen?”

For what it’s worth, I hope Senator Rand Paul (who is willing to fight for liberty) place a “hold” on all nominations to the Justice Department and Department of Homeland Security until and unless the government returns Serrano’s truck and compensates him for mistreatment.

Let’s close with some additional excerpts from the column that explain the injustice of civil asset forfeiture.

Many Americans haven’t heard of civil asset forfeiture, the legal provision that grants police the authority to seize cash and property from people not charged with a crime. The practice doesn’t follow the traditional American concept of “innocent until proven guilty.” If police suspect that you acquired something as a result of illegal activity, or even if it is connected to illegal activity, they can take it from you. If you want to get it back, the onus is on you to prove you got it legally. Once property is seized and forfeited, in most states and at the federal level police can either keep it for themselves or sell it at auction to raise money for the department. Critics say this creates a perverse profit motive. …said Robert Johnson, Serrano’s attorney. “That’s an open invitation to abuse.” The practice is widespread. In 2014, for instance, federal law enforcement officers alone took more than $5 billion worth of cash and property from people — more than the total amount of reported burglary losses that year. After public outcry, the Obama administration put in place a number of restrictions on forfeiture that made it harder, in some cases, for authorities to take property without a criminal conviction. But Attorney General Jeff Sessions recently reversed those restrictions.

Every sentence of the above passage is spot on. Including the last two sentences. The Obama Administration actually took a small step in the right direction, but that was reversed in a terrible move by Trump’s Attorney General.

And here are some excerpts from a column published by CapX.

…asset forfeiture lets government agents seize Americans’ assets (cash, but also cars and even houses) on the mere suspicion that they were involved in a crime. Asset forfeiture is intended to deprive criminals of their ill-gotten gains, but frequently enables police to take the property of Americans who remain innocent in the eyes of the law. …Asset forfeiture primarily targets the poor. Most forfeitures are for small amounts: in 2012, the Institute for Justice, a libertarian law firm that has focused heavily on asset forfeiture, analyzed forfeiture in 10 states and found that the median value of assets seized ranged from $451 (Minnesota) to $2,048 (Utah). Given that law enforcement routinely takes everything they find in a forfeiture case, these small values suggest the relative poverty of the victims. The procedural hurdles for challenging asset forfeiture also mean that poor people are less able to get their money back. The average forfeiture challenge requires four weekdays in court; missing four days of work can be a prohibitive expense for Americans living paycheck to paycheck. …Asset forfeiture is especially dangerous for the unbanked, because police and federal agents consider high amounts of cash to be suspect. …Asset forfeiture functions as a regressive tax, which reduces low-income Americans’ economic mobility. A family that sees their savings wiped out has to start again from the bottom. A person whose cash rent payment is seized may turn to payday loans or the black market, or simply be evicted—none of which are conducive to upward mobility.

Civil asset forfeiture is reprehensible.

The fact that poor people are disproportionately harmed is awful (and pervasive in parts of the criminal justice system).

P.S. To their credit, the first two administrators of the federal government’s civil asset forfeiture program now recognize that it’s become an abusive monster and want it repealed.

P.P.S. It’s possible that the border bureaucrats were acting because of bias, of perhaps profiling Serrano because of his Latino heritage. But I never hurl that accusation without some real evidence. Unlike some people.

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Because America’s Founding Fathers properly wanted to protect citizens from government abuse, the Constitution has several provisions (presumption of innocence, ban on warrantless searches, right to jury trial, 5th Amendment protection against self-incrimination, and other due process legal protections) to protect our liberties.

So one can only imagine how Jefferson, Madison, Mason, et al, must be rolling in their graves as they contemplate the disgusting practice of civil asset forfeiture, which basically allows agents of the government in the modern era to steal property from people who have not been convicted of any crime. I’m not joking.

Even worse, government agencies are allowed to profit from this form of theft, creating a terrible incentive for abuse.

Like certain other bad government policies that trample our rights (i.e., money-laundering laws that require banks to snoop on law-abiding customers), civil asset forfeiture is largely a result of the government’s failed War on Drugs. In other words, a classic example of one bad policy leading to other bad policies.

Widespread condemnation of civil asset forfeiture led to a tiny step in the right direction by the Obama Administration. And there have been positive reforms at the state level.

However, the Trump Administration and Justice Department are now pushing in the wrong direction.

Writing for USA Today, Professor Glenn Reynolds correctly castigates the Attorney General for his actions.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to steal from you. Oh, he doesn’t call it that. He calls it “civil forfeiture.” But what it is, is theft by law enforcement. Sessions should be ashamed. If I were president, he’d be fired. Under “civil forfeiture,” law enforcement can take property from people under the legal fiction that the property itself is guilty of a crime. …It was originally sold as a tool for going after the assets of drug kingpins, but nowadays it seems to be used against a lot of ordinary Americans who just have things that law enforcement wants. …Once in America, we had a presumption of innocence. But that was inconvenient to the powers that be. The problem is pretty widespread: In 2015, The Washington Post reported that law enforcement took more stuff from people than burglars did. …Sessions is doing exactly the wrong thing by doubling down on asset seizure. The message it sends is that the feds see the rest of us as prey, not as citizens. The attorney general should be ashamed to take that position.

David French of National Review is similarly disgusted.

…civil asset forfeiture. It’s a gigantic law-enforcement scam (in 2014 the government took more money from citizens than burglars stole from crime victims), and it’s a constitutional atrocity. It’s a constitutional atrocity that Donald Trump’s Department of Justice just expanded. Yesterday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions revived an abusive program that allows state authorities to seize property and then transfer the property to the federal government to implement the forfeiture process. Once the Feds obtain forfeiture, they then share the proceeds with the seizing state agency. This allows state law enforcement to explicitly circumvent state forfeiture restrictions and profit while doing so. …civil forfeiture allows the government to deprive citizens of their property even when it doesn’t even try to prove that the citizen committed a crime. …if the last 30 years of constitutional jurisprudence have taught us anything, it’s that we can’t count on courts to protect the Constitution when the War on Drugs is at issue. Forfeiture expanded dramatically as part of the War on Drugs, and the Supreme Court has proven that it will undermine even the First Amendment when constitutional rights clash with drug-enforcement priorities.

Erick Erickson adds his condemnation in the Resurgent.

Attorney General Jeff Sessions…has decided to expand a positively unconstitutional policy that should be ruthlessly fought in courts and legislatures around the country. Jeff Sessions wants to seize the property of Americans accused of crimes even if they are never found guilty by a jury. …According to the Department of Justice’s Inspector General, the Drug Enforcement Agency alone has seized more than $3 billion from people not charged with a crime. …What is appalling here is that many states are enacting prohibitions on civil asset forfeiture, but the Attorney General wants to allow state and local law enforcement to use federal asset forfeiture laws to continue seizing property. Local law enforcement will thereby be able to get around their own states’ laws, so long as they share the spoils of their ill gotten gains with the federal government. This turns the concept of federalism on its head.

In a column for Reason, Damon Root of Reason adds his two cents.

…civil asset forfeiture is not a “lawful tool.” It is an unconstitutional abuse of government power. The Fifth Amendment forbids the government from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. Civil asset forfeiture turns that venerable principle on its head, allowing government agents to take what they want without the bother of bringing charges, presenting clear and convincing evidence, and obtaining a conviction in a court of law. It is the antithesis of due process. …Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas…recently explained in a statement respecting the denial of certiorari in the case of Leonard v. Texas, not only has civil asset forfeiture “led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses” by law enforcement agencies around the country, but the practice is fundamentally incompatible with the Constitution.

Last but not least, the editors of National Review make several important points.

Like the Democrats’ crackpot plan to revoke the Second Amendment rights of U.S. citizens who have been neither charged with nor convicted of a crime simply for having been fingered as suspicious persons by some anonymous operative in Washington, seizing an American’s property because a police officer merely suspects that he might be a drug dealer or another species of miscreant does gross violence to the basic principle of due process. No doubt many of the men and women on the terrorism watch list are genuine bad guys, and no doubt many of those who have lost their property to asset forfeiture are peddling dope. But we are a nation of laws, which means a nation of procedural justice. If the DEA or the LAPD wants to punish a drug trafficker, then let them build a case, file charges, and see the affair through to a conviction. We have no objection to seizing the property of those convicted of drug smuggling — or of crimes related to terrorism, or many other kinds of offenses. We object, as all Americans should object, to handing out these punishments in the absence of a criminal conviction. …No American should be deprived of liberty or property without due process.

Amen.

For those of us who honor the Constitution, civil asset forfeiture is a stain on the nation.

Let’s close with an amusing take on the issue. Even though he’s referred to me as insane and irrational, I think Matthew Yglesias wins the prize for the most clever tweet.

P.S. If you want to put a human face on the horror of civil asset forfeiture, check out the horrible abuse that the Dehko family experienced. Or the mistreatment of Carole Hinders. Or the ransacking of Joseph Rivers. Or the brutalization of Thomas Williams.

P.P.S. And think about the fact that the first two administrators of the federal government’s asset forfeiture program now want it to be repealed.

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Some types of theft are legal in America.

But there’s a catch. You can only legally steal if you work for the government. It’s a process called “civil asset forfeiture” and it enables government officials to confiscate your property even if you have not been convicted of a crime. Or even charged with a crime.

I’m not joking. This isn’t a snarky reference to the tax system. Nor am I implying that bureaucrats can figuratively steal your property. We’re talking about literal theft by the state.

And it can happen if some government official decides – without any legal proceeding – that the property somehow may have been involved in criminal activity. Or maybe just because you have the wrong skin color.

A column in the Wall Street Journal explains this grotesque injustice.

…thousands of Americans have had their assets taken without ever being charged with a crime, let alone convicted. Russ Caswell almost lost his Massachusetts motel, which had been run by his family for more than 50 years, because of 15 “drug-related incidents” there from 1994-2008, a period through which he rented out nearly 200,000 rooms. Maryland dairy farmer Randy Sowers had his entire bank account—roughly $60,000—seized by the IRS, which accused him of running afoul of reporting requirements for cash deposits. …A manager of a Christian rock band had $53,000 in cash—profits from concerts and donations intended for an orphanage in Thailand—seized in Oklahoma after being stopped for a broken taillight. All of the property in these outrageous cases was eventually returned, but only after an arduous process.

These abuses happen in large part because cops are given bad incentives.

Any property they steal from citizens can be used to pad the budgets of police bureaucracies.

Today more than 40 states and the federal government permit law-enforcement agencies to retain anywhere from 45% to 100% of forfeiture proceeds. As a result, forfeiture has practically become an industry.

And real money is involved.

…data on asset forfeiture across 14 states, including California, Texas and New York. Between 2002 and 2013, the revenue from forfeiture more than doubled, from $107 million to $250 million. Federal confiscations have risen even faster. In 1986 the Justice Department’s Assets Forfeiture Fund collected $93.7 million. In 2014 the number was $4.5 billion.

In other words, there’s a huge incentive for cops to misbehave. It’s called “policing for profit.”

Fortunately, there is a move for reform at the state level.

Since 2014 nearly 20 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws limiting asset forfeiture or increasing transparency. Nearly 20 other states are considering similar legislation. …lawmakers in Alaska, Connecticut, North Dakota and Texas have sponsored legislation that would send confiscated proceeds directly to the general fund of the state or county. Similar measures in Arizona and Hawaii would restrict forfeiture proceeds to being used to compensate crime victims and their families. …Last fall California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a bill that, in most cases, requires a criminal conviction before any California agency can receive equitable-sharing proceeds. In January Ohio Gov. John Kasich approved legislation to ban his state’s police and prosecutors from transferring seized property to federal agencies unless its value is more than $100,000. Similar reforms have been introduced in Colorado, New Hampshire and a handful of other states.

Legislative reforms are good, though judicial action would be even better.

And, sooner or later, that may happen.

America’s best (but not quite perfect) Supreme Court Justice is justly outraged by these examples of legalized theft. First, some background.

…the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear a case filed by a Texas woman who says that her due process rights were violated when the police seized over $200,000 in cash from her family despite the fact that no one has been convicted of any underlying crime associated with the money. Unfortunately, thanks to the state’s sweeping civil asset forfeiture laws, the authorities were permitted to take the money of this innocent woman. The Supreme Court offered no explanation today for its refusal to hear the case.

But Justice Thomas is not happy that government officials are allowed to randomly steal property.

Justice Clarence Thomas made it clear that he believes the current state of civil asset forfeiture law is fundamentally unconstitutional. “This system—where police can seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use—has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses,” Thomas declared. Furthermore, he wrote, the Supreme Court’s previous rulings on the matter are starkly at odds with the Constitution, which “presumably would require the Court to align its distinct doctrine governing civil forfeiture with its doctrines governing other forms of punitive state action and property deprivation.” Those other doctrines, Thomas noted, impose significant checks on the government, such as heightened standards of proof, various procedural protections, and the right to a trial by jury. Civil asset forfeiture proceedings, by contrast, offer no such constitutional safeguards for the rights of person or property.

The article continues to explain that Thomas could be signalling that the Supreme Court will address these issues in the future, even though it didn’t choose to address the case filed by the Texas woman.

Let’s hope so. It’s heartening that there’s been a bit of good news at the state level (I even wrote that reform of asset forfeiture was one of the best developments of 2015), but it would be nice if the Supreme Court ultimately decided to prohibit civil asset forfeiture altogether.

But that might be years in the future, so let’s close with a very fresh example of a good state-based reform.

The Wall Street Journal favorably opined yesterday about reforms that have been enacted in Mississippi.

…it’s worth highlighting a civil forfeiture reform backed by the ACLU that Mississippi GOP Governor Phil Bryant signed last week with bipartisan legislative support.

The editorial reminds us why asset forfeiture is wrong.

…civil forfeiture laws…allow law enforcement agencies to seize property they suspect to be related to a crime without actually having to obtain a conviction or even submit charges. Police and prosecutors can auction off the property and keep the proceeds to pad their budgets. …Perverse incentives…create a huge potential for abuse.

Here’s what Mississippi did.

Mississippi’s reforms, which were pushed by the Institute for Justice and had nearly unanimous support in the legislature, would curb the most egregious abuses. Law enforcers would have to obtain a seizure warrant within 72 hours and prosecute within 30 days, so they couldn’t take property while trying to formulate a case. Agencies would also be required to publish a description of the seized property along with its value and petitions contesting the forfeiture to an online public database. …the public will finally be able to police misconduct by law enforcement in criminal raids. That’s something even liberals can cheer.

It’s nice that there’s been reform at the state level, and the Mississippi example is quite encouraging. That’s the good news.

But the bad news is that there may not be much reason to expect progress from the White House since both President Trump and his Attorney General support these arbitrary and unfair confiscations of property.

Which is a shame since they both took oaths to protect Americans from the kind of horrible abuse that the Dehko family experienced. Or the mistreatment of Carole Hinders. Or the ransacking of Joseph Rivers. Or the brutalization of Thomas Williams.

However, if the first two directors of the Justice Department’s asset forfeiture office can change their minds and urge repeal of these unfair laws, maybe there’s hope for Trump and Sessions.

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One of the unfortunate features of Washington is that people often wind up in places that bring out their worst behaviors.

The classic example is Jack Kemp, who did great work as a member of Congress to push a supply-side agenda of low marginal tax rates and less double taxation. Indeed, it’s no exaggeration to say that the Reagan tax cuts were made possible by Kemp’s yeoman efforts. But when President George H.W. Bush brought Kemp into his cabinet back in 1989, it wasn’t to head up the Treasury Department. It was to be Secretary of Housing and Urban Development, a department that shouldn’t even exist. And because Kemp was weak on spending issues, he predictably and unfortunately presided over an expansion of HUD’s budget. If he was at Treasury, by contrast, he may have been able to stop Bush’s disastrous read-my-lips tax deal.

Another example is that Republicans members of Congress from farm states generally favor small government. So if they wind up on committees that deal with overall fiscal issues, they usually are allies in the effort to restrain Leviathan. Unfortunately, they more often wind up on the Agriculture Committee, which means they accumulate power and expertise in the area where they are least likely to favor free markets and limited government. They net effect is that  they may still have a decent voting record, but their actual impact on public policy will be harmful. The same thing happens with Republicans who get on the transportation committees.

Today’s example is Attorney General Jeff Sessions. When he was Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, he was an ally in the fight against big government. He favored decentralization. He supported rolling back the welfare state. He favored entitlement reform. He supported tax cuts. He used his power and position to try to do the right thing. But when Trump asked Sessions to join his cabinet, it wasn’t to head the Office of Management and Budget, a position that would have been a good fit. Instead, Trump picked him to be Attorney General, which is problematical because Sessions is an advocate of the failed War on Drugs. And he’s also a supporter of “asset forfeiture,” which occurs when governments steal money and property from citizens without convicting them of any crime. Or sometimes without even charging them with a crime.

I’m not joking. This happens with distressing regularity. It’s called “policing for profit.”

In poor nations, a corrupt cop will stop motorists to shake them down for pocket change. In the United States, we’ve legalized a bigger version of that sleazy behavior. George Will shared a reprehensible example last December.

The Sourovelises’ son, who lived at home, was arrested for selling a small amount of drugs away from home. Soon there was a knock on their door by police who said, “We’re here to take your house” and “You’re going to be living on the street” and “We do this every day.” The Sourovelises’ doors were locked with screws and their utilities were cut off. They had paid off the mortgage on their $350,000 home, making it a tempting target for policing for profit. Nationwide, proceeds from sales of seized property (homes, cars, etc.) go to the seizers. And under a federal program, state and local law enforcement can partner with federal authorities in forfeiture and reap up to 80 percent of the proceeds. This is called — more Orwellian newspeak — “equitable sharing.” No crime had been committed in the Sourovelises’ house, but the title of the case against them was “Commonwealth of Pennsylvania v. 12011 Ferndale Street.” Somehow, a crime had been committed by the house. In civil forfeiture, it suffices that property is suspected of having been involved in a crime. Once seized, the property’s owners bear the burden of proving their property’s innocence.

The good news is that there’s a growing desire to stop governments from stealing.

Indeed, Will points out that there was “a 2015 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on forfeiture abuses.”

Unfortunately, not everybody at the hearing agreed that it’s wrong for governments to arbitrarily engage in theft.

…one senator said “taking and seizing and forfeiting, through a government judicial process, illegal gains from criminal enterprises is not wrong,” and neither is law enforcement enriching itself from this. …this senator asserted an unverifiable number: “Ninety-five percent” of forfeitures involve people who have “done nothing in their lives but sell dope.” This senator said it should not be more difficult for “government to take money from a drug dealer than it is for a businessperson to defend themselves in a lawsuit.” In seizing property suspected of involvement in a crime, government “should not have a burden of proof higher than in a normal civil case.”

The Senator who made these statements was Jeff Sessions.

And, as George Will explains, the then-Senator missed a few points.

In civil forfeiture there usually is no proper “judicial process.” There is no way of knowing how many forfeitures involve criminals because the government takes property without even charging anyone with a crime. The government’s vast prosecutorial resources are one reason it properly bears the burden of proving criminal culpability “beyond a reasonable doubt.” A sued businessperson does not have assets taken until he or she has lost in a trial, whereas civil forfeiture takes property without a trial and the property owner must wage a protracted, complex, and expensive fight to get it returned.

The Wall Street Journal also opined about the new Attorney General’s indefensible position.

The all-too-common practice allows law enforcement to take private property without due process and has become a cash cow for state and local police and prosecutors. …Assets are often seized—and never returned—without any judicial process or court supervision. Unlike criminal forfeiture, civil forfeiture doesn’t require a criminal conviction or even charges. According to the Virginia-based Institute for Justice, which tracks forfeitures, 13% of all forfeitures done by the Justice Department between 1997 and 2013 were in criminal cases while 87% were civil forfeitures. And 88% of those forfeitures were done by an administrative agency, not a court. …The lack of procedural protection coupled with financial incentives has turned policing for profit into a slush fund for governments hungry for cash, and the payouts too often come at the expense of civil liberties. We’d like to hear what Mr. Sessions thinks of the practice today.

Sadly, it doesn’t appear that President Trump is on the right side either.

In a new column on the topic, George Will addresses this unfortunate development.

There is no reason for the sheriffs to want to reform a racket that lines their pockets. For the rest of us, strengthening the rule of law and eliminating moral hazard are each sufficient reasons. Civil forfeiture is the power to seize property suspected of being produced by, or involved in, crime. If property is suspected of being involved in criminal activity, law enforcement can seize it. Once seized, the property’s owners bear the burden of proving that they were not involved in such activity, which can be a costly and protracted procedure. So, civil forfeiture proceeds on the guilty-until-proven-innocent principle. Civil forfeiture forces property owners, often people of modest means, to hire lawyers and do battle against a government with unlimited resources. And here is why the sheriffs probably purred contentedly when Trump endorsed civil forfeiture law — if something so devoid of due process can be dignified as law: Predatory law enforcement agencies can pocket the proceeds from the sale of property they seize.

The folks at Reason have a new video on Trump’s support for theft-by-government.

By the way, I hold out some hope that Trump may not be completely bad on the issue. It’s possible that he’s never considered the issue and doesn’t understand that it involves over-the-top government thuggery. He may simply think it’s some sort of procedural issue involving good cops against bad crooks.

So perhaps when he is briefed on what the issue really means, he’ll be in favor of protecting Americans from the kind of horrible abuse that the Dehko family experienced. Or the mistreatment of Carole Hinders. Or the ransacking of Joseph Rivers. Or the brutalization of Thomas Williams.

I could continue, but I think you get the point.

Let’s close, though, with some good news. I wrote two years ago about the case of Charles Clarke, who had $11,000 that was stolen by government. Thanks to the Institute for Justice, that stolen money has been returned.

Charles Clarke, the college student who was robbed of $11,000 in cash by cops at the Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport two years ago, will get his money back with interest under an agreement he reached with the Justice Department this week. …To keep the money, the government theoretically had to show that it more likely than not came from selling drugs or was intended to buy them. But that burden applied only if Clarke had the means to challenge the forfeiture once the government had taken his savings. Innocent owners often find that standing up for their rights costs more than the value of the property they are trying to get back. Luckily for Clarke, he had the Institute for Justice in his corner.

And the other bit of good news is that New Mexico has curtailed the disgusting practice of asset forfeiture. Hopefully Trump won’t try to destroy the careers of the lawmakers who decided the Constitution was more important than lining the pockets of the bureaucracy.

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