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Posts Tagged ‘Civil Asset Forfeiture’

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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When writing about money laundering laws, I’ll sometimes highlight gross abuses by government and I’ll periodically make the usual libertarian arguments about privacy.

But I mostly focus on how the laws simply don’t make sense from a cost-benefit perspective. Anti-money laundering laws and regulations impose large burdens on the private sector, which creates disproportionate hardship for the poor. Yet there’s no evidence that the laws actually hinder criminal activity, which was the rationale for imposing the laws in the first place.

I have the same attitude about the War on Drugs. Yes, I get upset that people are mistreated and it irks me as a libertarian that people aren’t free to make their own choices (even if they are dumb choices) about what to put in their bodies.

But what really gets me angry is the absurd misallocation of law enforcement resources. Consider this info from a recent WonkBlog column in the Washington Post about the ever-expanding efforts of government to harass drug users.

Federal figures on drug arrests and drug use over the past three decades tell the story. Drug-possession arrests skyrocketed, from fewer than 200 arrests for every 100,000 people in 1979…, hovering near 400 arrests per 100,000 people. …despite the tough-on-crime push that led to the surge in arrests in recent decades, illicit drug use today is more common among Americans age 12 and older than it was in the early 1980s. Federal figures show no correlation between drug-possession arrests and rates of drug use during that time.

But here’s the part that should upset all of us, even if we don’t like drugs or even if we think they should be illegal.

Instead of focusing on the fight against crimes that actually have victims (such as robbery, murder, rape, assault, etc), the government is squandering an immense about of time, energy, resources, and money on drug arrests.

…arrests for drug possession continue to make up a significant chunk of modern-day police work. “Around the country, police make more arrests for drug possession than for any other crime,” the report finds, citing FBI data. “More than one of every nine arrests by state law enforcement is for drug possession, amounting to more than 1.25 million arrests each year.” In fact, police make more arrests for marijuana possession alone than for all violent crimes combined.

That last sentence is breathtaking. Does anyone think that busting potheads is more important than fighting genuine crime?!?

Do you want an example of law enforcement resources being misallocated?

Well, this story from New Hampshire tells you everything you need to know.

…an 81-year-old grandmother had been growing…the plant as medicine, a way to ease arthritis and glaucoma and help her sleep at night. Tucked away in a raspberry patch and separated by a fence from any neighbors, the plant was nearly ready for harvest when a military-style helicopter and police descended on Sept. 21. In a joint raid, the Massachusetts National Guard and State Police entered her yard and cut down the solitary plant…authorities are using budgeted funds, prior to the end of the federal fiscal year Saturday, to gas up helicopters and do flyovers. …“Is this the way we want our taxpayer money spent, to hassle an 81-year-old and law-abiding patients?” Cutler said.

Gee, I don’t know about you, but I’ll sleep more comfortably tonight knowing that lots of taxpayer money was squandered to seize a pot plant from this dangerous granny!

Still not convinced that law enforcement resources aren’t being wasted? And still not upset that lives are being disrupted and harmed by heavy-handed government.

Then consider this horror story from Reason.

James Slatic, a California medical marijuana business owner, found out all his family’s bank accounts had been seized by the government one day in January when his 19-year-old daughter tried to buy lunch at the San Jose State University cafeteria and her card was declined. Slatic’s wife tried to transfer money to their daughter, figuring she had simply overdrawn her account, as teenagers are wont to do, but her account wouldn’t work, either. What the Slatics soon learned was the San Diego police had frozen all of their bank accounts: $55,258 from Slatic’s personal checking and savings account; $34,175 from his wife Annette’s account; and a combined $11,260 from the savings accounts of their two teenage daughters, Penny and Lily. …The Slatics’ crimes? None. Or at least, the San Diego District Attorney’s Office hasn’t charged them with any in the nine months since it seized their accounts.

His business also was shut down, which wasn’t good news for him or his employees that are now out on the street.

The trouble for James Slatic began five days before his family’s accounts were frozen, when around 30 San Diego police officers and DEA agents raided Slatic’s medical marijuana business, Med-West Distribution, and seized nearly $325,000 in cash from a safe. …The raid was a crushing blow to Slatic—not to mention his 35 employees, who lost their jobs and benefits without notice.

Here’s a video detailing this disgusting abuse by government.

There is some good news. Voters in several states voted last week to decriminalize pot.

And for those who worry that legalizing marijuana will be a gateway to decriminalizing harder drugs, I encourage you to read this Cato Institute study on what happened after Portugal legalized all drugs early last decade.

This isn’t an argument about whether you should use drugs, like drugs, or approve of drug use. You can be the drug equivalent of a teetotaler like me and still realize that it makes no sense for the government to squander lots of money and hurt lots of lives simply because politicians want to control what people choose to put in their own bodies.

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Notwithstanding the title of this post, I’m not going to make an ultra-libertarian argument that all taxation is theft (see the P.P.P.S. below if you want my thoughts on that issue).

Instead, today’s topic is about a more specialized version of theft by government, which technically is called civil asset forfeiture but more accurately should be referred to as policing for profit.

It occurs when the government seizes cash or other property even though the victimized citizen has never been convicted – or in many cases even charged – with a crime.

I wish I was joking. But as you can see from these excerpts from a recent report, this is horrifyingly real.

Simply carrying a large amount of cash in a grocery sack in your car is now sufficient grounds for a police officer to seize your money, a US circuit court has ruled. A panel of the Eighth US Circuit Court of Appeals found that all a deputy has to do to seize cash from a person is say it is drug money. The court refused to return the $63,530 that Deputy Dave Wintle seized from a disabled veteran named Mark A. Brewer during a traffic stop in 2011. Brewer was never charged with a crime or even given a traffic ticket. Yet the decorated Air Force veteran lost his savings when a drug-sniffing dog smelled marijuana on it, even though no cannabis was found in Brewer’s car or his home. …Brewer saved the money from disability payments and his Air Force pay — as documents deputies found in the car indicated.

Since much of our currency contains traces of marijuana and cocaine, there was no way to determine if Mr. Brewer had “drug money” simply on the basis of what the dog smelled.

What’s especially disturbing is that a court agreed that there was no evidence of a crime, but the Judge decided to “assume” the money was criminal.

“The record here does not make clear whether the seized currency constitutes property used to facilitate a drug offense or proceeds from a drug offense,” Judge Bobby E. Shepherd wrote in a March 23 opinion upholding the seizure. “For the purposes of analysis, however, we will assume that the currency facilitated a drug offense and is thus subject to [to be seized].” It was taken through a legal mechanism called civil forfeiture.

And to add injury to injury, the court case will apply to several states.

Even more tragic: The ruling will have a wide impact. “This court case will be the ‘law of the circuit’ for Arkansas, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri and North and South Dakota as well, creating even more barriers for Americans to fight back against unjust seizures in court,” Sibilla wrote.

But we do have a sliver of good news.

Meanwhile, New Mexico has become the second state to effectively eliminate the use of civil forfeiture and seizure by law enforcement. …It still will allow the criminal forfeiture of property, although that legal barrier is much higher for the government. …“This is the first time in decades that a state legislature has taken the bold but necessary step to put an end to the perverse financial incentive in civil forfeiture laws,” Scott Bullock, the attorney in charge of the Institute for Justice’s battle against the practice, stated in a press release. “Thankfully, Governor Martinez and the New Mexico legislature recognized that no one should lose their property without being first convicted of a crime.”

Kudos to Governor Martinez and New Mexico lawmakers.

Now we need action in Washington.

P.S. Here are some other cases of “policing for profit” that should distress all decent people.

*Such as when the government wanted to steal someone’s truck because a different person was arrested for drunk driving.

*Such as when the government tried to steal the bond money a family has collected to bail out a relative.

*Such as when the government seized nearly $400,000 of a business owner’s money because it was in the possession of an armored car company suspected of wrongdoing.

*Such as when the government sought to confiscate an office building from the owner because a tenant was legally selling medical marijuana.

*Such as when the government killed a man as part of an anti-gambling investigation undertaken in hopes of using asset forfeiture to steal other people’s cash.

*And you can read several other outrageous examples by clicking here.

All I can say is that our Founding Fathers must be rolling over in their graves. They gave us a marvelous Constitution precisely to protect citizens from government abuse.

Yet now courts routinely allow governments at all levels to run roughshod over our civil liberties.

P.P.S. It surely must say something that the first two directors of the Justice Department’s asset forfeiture office now say the law is riddled with abuse and should be repealed.

P.P.P.S. For what it’s worth, here’s my two cents on the issue of taxation and theft. Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart famously opined, when seeking to define pornography, that “I know it when I see it.” That’s not exactly a firm legal definition, but I’ve always liked his reasoning. When I look at a jurisdiction such as Hong Kong, with a relatively small and honest government, I think of taxes as an unfortunate but acceptable price to pay. But when I think of nations with bloated public sectors and maliciously destructive tax regimes, then there’s little doubt in my mind that taxation is theft. And that’s true if the government is sinisterly malign, such as Venezuela, or a failing welfare state, such as France.

Especially when tax rates exceed 100 percent!

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Earlier today, I gave a speech to some folks at London’s Institute of Economic Affairs about the failure of global financial regulation.

I touched on some predictable themes:

The absence of cost/benefit analysis for regulatory initiatives.

The failure of anti-money laundering laws and their harmful impact on the poor.

How one-size-fits-all Basel rules led to imprudent risk and misallocation of capital.

How anti-tax competition schemes impose high costs on the financial system (which get passed on to financial consumers).

One thing I noticed, though, is that I didn’t get overly passionate when discussing these topics. I didn’t even get that worked up when talking about the OECD’s dangerous plan to create something akin to a World Tax Organization.

But I did get rather agitated when talking about how money-laundering rules and regulations have led to disgusting and reprehensible examples of so-called civil asset forfeiture.

This happens when a government decides to steal the property of citizens simply because they think it may have been involved in illegal activity.

Politicians and bureaucrats often use the failed Drug War as their rationale, but the activity doesn’t actually have to be illegal. I specifically cited the horrific example of the government stealing $35,000 from some folks in Michigan for no other reason than money from the family grocery business was generally deposited in amounts under $10,000.

I’m sure such government actions have a negative economic impact, but this is a case where the moral argument should take precedence.

Simply stated, all decent and humane people should stand united against thuggery by government.

And in an example of serendipity, after finishing my speech, I turned on my computer and came across more evidence against civil asset forfeiture.

Here are some truly disturbing passages from a report in the Detroit Free Press that showed up in my Twitter feed.

Thomas Williams was alone that November morning in 2013 when police raided his rural St. Joseph County home, wearing black masks, camouflage and holding guns at their sides. They broke down his front door with a battering ram. “We think you’re dealing marijuana,” they told Williams, a 72-year-old, retired carpenter and cancer patient who is disabled and carries a medical marijuana card. When he protested, they handcuffed him and left him on the living room floor as they ransacked his home, emptying drawers, rummaging through closets and surveying his grow room, where he was nourishing his 12 personal marijuana plants as allowed by law.

All this sounds horrible – and it is, but it gets worse.

They did not charge Williams with a crime… Instead, they took his Dodge Journey, $11,000 in cash from his home, his television, his cell phone, his shotgun and are attempting to take his Colon Township home. And they plan to keep the proceeds, auctioning off the property and putting the cash in police coffers. More than a year later, he is still fighting to get his belongings back and to hang on to his house. “I want to ask them, ‘Why? Why me?’ I gave them no reason to do this to me,” said Williams, who says he also suffers from glaucoma, a damaged disc in his back, and COPD, a lung disorder. “I’m out here minding my own business, and just wanted to be left alone.”

Why him? Well, one local attorney has a good idea of what’s really happening.

“It’s straight up theft,” said Williams’ Kalamazoo attorney, Dan Grow. “The forfeiture penalty does not match the crime. It’s absurd. …A lot of my practice is made up of these kinds of cases — middle-aged, middle-income people who have never been in trouble before. It’s all about the money.”

Just to be clear, Mr. Grow is emphasizing the utterly perverse incentive structure that exists when cops are allowed to steal money from citizens and use it to pad their own budget.

This system needs to be reformed.

And the second bit of serendipity is that a new report from the Institute for Justice showed up in my inbox. It explains why civil asset forfeiture should be abolished. And while the report focuses on the venal actions of the IRS, this reform should apply to all government agencies at all levels of government.

Civil forfeiture is the government’s power to take property suspected of involvement in a crime. Unlike criminal forfeiture, no one needs to be convicted of—or even a charged with—a crime for the government to take the property. Lax civil forfeiture standards enable the IRS to “seize first and ask questions later,” taking money without serious investigation and forcing owners into a long and difficult legal battle to try to stop the forfeiture. Any money forfeited is then used to fund further law enforcement efforts, giving agencies like the IRS an incentive to seize.

Here’s how IJ suggests that this type of abuse can be halted.

The surest way to prevent innocent people from losing money unjustly would be to end civil forfeiture and replace it with criminal forfeiture. Short of that, removing the financial incentive to seize, raising the standard of proof to forfeit and enacting other procedural reforms would help protect people from losing their bank accounts when the government has little or no proof of criminal wrongdoing.

While the Institute for Justice does great work, I don’t think they should have opened the door to halfway reforms.

Heck, even the two people who helped start up the Justice Department’s asset forfeiture program now say it should be abolished.

P.S. The Princess of the Levant is also in London, so I’m being forced to engage in tourist activities.

We took a ride on the London Eye, which wasn’t cheap but offers very good views of Big Ben, the House of Commons, Westminster Abbey, and other historic sites.

As far as I’m concerned, though, London is too cold and dreary. The only good tourism involves a warm beach in the Caribbean.

P.P.S. To close on a humorous note, here’s some anti-gun control humor with a rather pointed message.

Definitely worth adding to my collection.

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I don’t particularly care how people vote, but I do care whether they believe in freedom.

That’s why I periodically share stories that should convince everyone to believe in the libertarian philosophy of small government, individual liberty, and personal responsibility.

The stories that get me most agitated are the ones that involve innocent people being robbed by bureaucrats.

And when I say robbed, I use that word deliberately.

Such as the case of an elderly couple who had their hotel stolen by government.

Such as the case of the family grocer who had his bank account stolen by government.

Such as when the government wanted to steal someone’s truck because a different person was arrested for drunk driving.

Such as when the government tried to steal the bond money a family collected to bail out a relative.

Such as when the government seized nearly $400,000 of a business owner’s money because it was in the possession of an armored car company suspected of wrongdoing.

Such as when the government sought to confiscate an office building from the owner because a tenant was legally selling medical marijuana.

Such as when the government killed a man as part of an anti-gambling investigation undertaken in hopes of using asset forfeiture to steal other people’s cash.

With all this background, you can probably guess I’m going to add to that list.

And you’re right. We have a report from the New York Times that has me frothing at the mouth. I can’t imagine any decent person not being outraged by this example of big government run amok.

For almost 40 years, Carole Hinders has dished out Mexican specialties at her modest cash-only restaurant. For just as long, she deposited the earnings at a small bank branch a block away — until last year, when two tax agents knocked on her door and informed her that they had seized her checking account, almost $33,000. The Internal Revenue Service agents did not accuse Ms. Hinders of money laundering or cheating on her taxes — in fact, she has not been charged with any crime. Instead, the money was seized solely because she had deposited less than $10,000 at a time, which they viewed as an attempt to avoid triggering a required government report.

In other words, this is an example of two evil policies – asset forfeiture laws and money laundering laws – coming together in a vortex of we’ll-screw-you-over-even-if-you’re-law-abiding statism.

And you can forget about the Constitution’s presumption of innocence.

Ms. Hinders said in a recent interview. “Who takes your money before they prove that you’ve done anything wrong with it?” The federal government does. Using a law designed to catch drug traffickers, racketeers and terrorists by tracking their cash, the government has gone after run-of-the-mill business owners and wage earners without so much as an allegation that they have committed serious crimes. The government can take the money without ever filing a criminal complaint, and the owners are left to prove they are innocent. Many give up.

Of course, much of tax code enforcement is based on the upside-down premise that taxpayers are guilty and have to prove themselves innocent.

But that still doesn’t make it right. And the IRS is just the tip of the iceberg. Stealing is now a common practice by all sorts of bureaucracies at all levels of government.

The practice has swept up dairy farmers in Maryland, an Army sergeant in Virginia saving for his children’s college education and Ms. Hinders, 67, who has borrowed money, strained her credit cards and taken out a second mortgage to keep her restaurant going. Their money was seized under an increasingly controversial area of law known as civil asset forfeiture, which allows law enforcement agents to take property they suspect of being tied to crime even if no criminal charges are filed. Law enforcement agencies get to keep a share of whatever is forfeited. Critics say this incentive has led to the creation of a law enforcement dragnet, with more than 100 multiagency task forces combing through bank reports, looking for accounts to seize.

Here’s just one horrifying example of how this process works.

 In one Long Island case, the police submitted almost a year’s worth of daily deposits by a business, ranging from $5,550 to $9,910. The officer wrote in his warrant affidavit that based on his training and experience, the pattern “is consistent with structuring.” The government seized $447,000 from the business, a cash-intensive candy and cigarette distributor that has been run by one family for 27 years. …the government seized $447,000, and the brothers have been unable to retrieve it. …Mr. Potashnik said he had spent that time trying, to no avail, to show that the brothers were innocent. They even paid a forensic accounting firm $25,000 to check the books. “I don’t think they’re really interested in anything,” Mr. Potashnik said of the prosecutors. “They just want the money.” …“We’re just hanging on as a family here,” Mr. Hirsch said. “We weren’t going to take a settlement, because I was not guilty.”

Still not convinced about the venality of big government? Here’s another nauseating example.

Army Sgt. Jeff Cortazzo of Arlington, Va., began saving for his daughters’ college costs during the financial crisis, when many banks were failing. He stored cash first in his basement and then in a safe-deposit box. All of the money came from paychecks, he said, but he worried that when he deposited it in a bank, he would be forced to pay taxes on the money again. So he asked the bank teller what to do. “She said: ‘Oh, that’s easy. You just have to deposit less than $10,000.’” The government seized $66,000; settling cost Sergeant Cortazzo $21,000. As a result, the eldest of his three daughters had to delay college by a year. “Why didn’t the teller tell me that was illegal?” he said. “I would have just plopped the whole thing in the account and been done with it.”

By the way, some of you may be thinking that these terrible examples are somehow justifiable because the government is stopping crime in other instances.

But that’s not true. Experts who have looking at money laundering laws have found that there’s no impact on genuine criminal activity. But lots of costs imposed on innocent people.

Which probably explains why the first two directors of the Justice Department’s Asset Forfeiture Office now say the laws should be repealed.

If you want more information, here’s my video on the government’s costly and failed war on money laundering.

Sigh.

By the way, the government also abuses people in ways that have nothing to do with money laundering or asset forfeiture.

And there are more examples where those came from.

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If you ask me about the most wasteful department in the federal government, I’ll state that there are lots of good choices, but if forced to identify the best candidate for elimination, I’ll go with the Department of Housing and Urban Development.

If you ask me about the entitlement program most in need of reform, I’m tempted to say all of them, but ultimately I’ll argue that we should first fix Medicaid by devolving it to the states, accompanied by block grants as a transitional funding mechanism.

But if you ask me to identify the most evil and despicable thing that government does, I have no hesitation in picking asset forfeiture, which is the horrifying practice of bureaucrats stealing private property simply because they think the owners may have some connection with criminal activity.

*Such as when the government wanted to steal someone’s truck because a different person was arrested for drunk driving.

*Such as when the government tried to steal the bond money a family has collected to bail out a relative.

*Such as when the government seized nearly $400,000 of a business owner’s money because it was in the possession of an armored car company suspected of wrongdoing.

*Such as when the government sought to confiscate an office building from the owner because a tenant was legally selling medical marijuana.

*Such as when the government killed a man as part of an anti-gambling investigation undertaken in hopes of using asset forfeiture to steal the gamblers’ cash.

*Such as when the government tried to steal $17,000 from a motorist even though they never charged him with a crime, much less convicted him of any offense.

If you click the links and read those disgusting examples of thieving government, you’ll agree that all decent and human people should be libertarians.

And if you need more evidence that asset forfeiture should be eliminated, John Yoder and Brad Cates, the first two directors of the Justice Department’s Asset Forfeiture Office, have a column in today’s Washington Post, and they unambiguously disown the bureaucracy they created and the evils it has spawned.

As two people who were heavily involved in the creation of the asset forfeiture initiative at the Justice Department in the 1980s, we find it particularly painful to watch as the heavy hand of government goes amok. …Asset forfeiture was conceived as a way to cut into the profit motive that fueled rampant drug trafficking by cartels and other criminal enterprises, in order to fight the social evils of drug dealing and abuse. Over time, however, the tactic has turned into an evil itself, with the corruption it engendered among government and law enforcement coming to clearly outweigh any benefits.

They then describe how the program metastasized.

The idea seemed so simple: Seize the ill-gotten gains of big-time drug dealers and remove the financial incentive for their criminality. After all, if a kingpin could earn $20 million and stash it away somewhere, even a decade in prison would have its rewards. Make that money disappear, and the calculus changes. Then, in 1986, the concept was expanded to include not only cash earned illegally but also purchases or investments made with that money, creating a whole scheme of new crimes that could be prosecuted as “money laundering.” The property eligible for seizure was further expanded to include “instrumentalities” in the trafficking of drugs, such as cars or even jewelry. Eventually, more than 200 crimes beyond drugs came to be included in the forfeiture scheme.

I’m especially glad they include the government’s foolish and costly anti-money laundering laws as they discuss government run amok.

A big problem is that these laws create perverse incentives for abusive behavior by bureaucracies.

This all may have been fine in theory, but in the real world it went badly astray.  …As time went on and states got into the forfeiture game, the uses became more personally rewarding for law enforcement. …Law enforcement agents and prosecutors began using seized cash and property to fund their operations, supplanting general tax revenue, and this led to the most extreme abuses: law enforcement efforts based upon what cash and property they could seize to fund themselves, rather than on an even-handed effort to enforce the law. …the old speed traps have all too often been replaced by forfeiture traps, where local police stop cars and seize cash and property to pay for local law enforcement efforts. This is a complete corruption of the process, and it unsurprisingly has led to widespread abuses.

Here’s the bottom line.

…civil forfeiture is fundamentally at odds with our judicial system and notions of fairness. It is unreformable. …our forfeiture laws turn our traditional concept of guilt upside down. Civil forfeiture laws presume someone’s personal property to be tainted, placing the burden of proving it “innocent” on the owner. What of the Fourth Amendment requirement that a warrant to seize or search requires the showing of probable cause of a specific violation? Defendants should be charged with the crimes they commit. Charge someone with drug dealing if it can be proved, but don’t invent a second offense of “money laundering” to use as a backup or a pretext to seize cash. …Civil asset forfeiture and money-laundering laws are gross perversions of the status of government amid a free citizenry. …it is unacceptable that a citizen should have to “prove” anything to the government. …if the government has proof beyond a reasonable doubt of guilt, let that guilt be proclaimed by 12 peers.

Amen. Our Founding Fathers gave us a Constitution to protect us against this kind of petty tyranny. Our presumption of innocence shouldn’t be eroded just because some bureaucrats are greedy to steal private property.

For more information, here’s a must-watch video on asset forfeiture from the Institute for Justice.

And here’s my video on intrusive and pointless anti-money laundering laws.

And there’s another video at this link if you want to see a horror story that combines asset forfeiture and anti-money laundering nonsense.

Moral of the story: These laws should be repealed as soon as possible.

P.S. A few days ago, I predicted the Scots would vote against independence by a 56-44 margin. The final results were 55.3-44.7 against independence. That’s almost as good as my prediction for the 2010 mid-term elections.

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Since I’m a public finance economist, I realize I’m supposed to focus on big-picture issues such as tax reform and entitlement reform. And I do beat those issues to death, so I obviously care about controlling the size and power of government.

But I like to think I’m also a decent human being. And this is why I get even more agitated when politicians and bureaucrats engage in thuggish behavior against comparatively powerless citizens.

Some of the worst examples of government thuggery are the result of “asset forfeiture,” which happens when governments confiscate the property of people who haven’t been convicted of any crime. Heck, sometimes they’re not even charged with any crime.

*Such as when the government wanted to steal someone’s truck because a different person was arrested for drunk driving.

*Such as when the government tried to steal the bond money a family has collected to bail out a relative.

*Such as when the government seized nearly $400,000 of a business owner’s money because it was in the possession of an armored car company suspected of wrongdoing.

*Such as when the government sought to confiscate an office building from the owner because a tenant was legally selling medical marijuana.

*Such as when the government killed a man as part of an anti-gambling investigation undertaken in hopes of using asset forfeiture to steal other people’s cash.

But we do have a bit of good news. All these horror stories seem to be causing a backlash.

Fox News has a very revealing article on how this system is under assault. The story begins by explaining how asset forfeiture is an open invitation for abuse and grossly inconsistent with the Constitution.

Civil forfeiture is when police and prosecutors seize property, cars or cash from someone they suspect of wrongdoing. …authorities don’t have to prove guilt, file charges or obtain a conviction before seizing private property. Critics say it is a process ripe for abuse, and one which leaves citizens little means of fighting back. “You breed a culture of ‘take first, ask questions later,’” Larry Salzman, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, told FoxNews.com. “It’s thuggish behavior.” …civil forfeitures represent a dangerous area of the U.S. justice system where, by law, a person is supposed to be presumed innocent until proven guilty and not the other way around.

The report from Fox cites a couple of reasons why asset forfeiture is misguided. One major problem is that it gives cops a budgetary incentive to steal.

In Tennessee, local law enforcement agencies get to keep 100 percent of all property seized through civil forfeiture – an incentive some say can tempt police to go after property for the wrong reasons.

Fortunately, people are now fighting this horrible procedure. The story explains that a former law enforcement official who is now a state lawmaker, Barrett Rich, is trying to reform Tennessee’s awful bill.

And Minnesota actually has eliminated this odious tactic. Here are some excerpts from a Forbes column.

In a big win for property rights and due process, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bill yesterday to curb an abusive—and little known—police practice called civil forfeiture. Unlike criminal forfeiture, under civil forfeiture someone does not have to be convicted of a crime, or even charged with one, to permanently lose his or her cash, car or home. …Now the government can only take property if it obtains a criminal conviction or its equivalent, like if a property owner pleads guilty to a crime or becomes an informant. The bill also shifts the burden of proof onto the government, where it rightfully belongs.

Wyoming’s state legislature also is considering reform, so there are positive developments in many different states.

For more information, click here for a very good introductory video about civil asset forfeiture.

If you like videos, click here for a horrifying video about the government stealing $17,000 from an innocent man.

And here’s another video, this one about the government stealing money from a family grocery store.

Last but not least, if you want to get more upset, here are some additional examples of non-forfeiture related government thuggery.

Gee, it’s almost enough to make a person a libertarian!

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