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Latest Police Scandal: Highway Robbery

It’s time to put an end to “civil asset forfeiture,” or as the practice is more commonly called, “the cops taking your money.”

Over the past week, The Washington Post has been publishing an investigative series on a property seizure tactic used by American police departments called “civil asset forfeiture.” Following the police shooting of unarmed teen Michael Brown, the unrest in Ferguson, MO last month focused the media’s attention on the extreme militarization of U.S. police forces, and how funding from the war on terror has furnished local departments with gear more appropriate for an active warzone than the streets of a prosperous nation. The Post series focuses on another way cops fund their machine-gun fetishes and bloated retirement funds—stealing.

The technique involves police stopping people for traffic infractions or supposedly suspicious behavior, searching the car, and if they find any money, taking it. That’s it. Victims are not accused of, or charged with a crime, and no connection is made between the money and any ongoing criminal activity. Among the reasons given in WaPo for the traffic stops and seizures are “indicators of criminal activity” like “trash on the floor of a vehicle, abundant energy drinks or air fresheners hanging from rearview mirrors,” “clenched jaws and perspiration,” having duct tape in the car, and of course, driving while being something other than Caucasian.

Those who’ve had their property seized can theoretically sue to recover their money, and some have done so successfully, but the process can involve expensive legal fees and drawn out court battles that often end in settlements, allowing these literal highway robbers to keep at least a portion of their ill-gotten gains. The practice, which traces its roots back to British Admiralty Law, requires victims to prove their ownership before reclaiming their own money.

And it gets worse: Don’t expect to appeal to any higher authorities when the man with the gun takes your cash—the spoils are kicked up the chain all the way to the top, through an innocuous-sounding federal program called “Equitable Sharing.” As in any organized crime consortium, the boss always gets a taste when their underlings pull a job, and the federal government, in this case playing the part of Tony Soprano, has every perverse incentive there is to keep the money flowing in. The Post Reports:

There have been 61,998 cash seizures made on highways and elsewhere since 9/11 without search warrants or indictments through the Equitable Sharing Program, totaling more than $2.5 billion. State and local authorities kept more than $1.7 billion of that while Justice, Homeland Security and other federal agencies received $800 million. Half of the seizures were below $8,800.

This is pretty big business. The “highway interdiction” process has become increasingly common; civil asset forfeiture has doubled during Barack Obama’s presidency, and a growing raft of private firms offer consultation to individual departments and municipalities on how to use the method to up their income.

Considering the relatively low dollar amount of at least half the seizures, along with the compelling data and personal accounts complied by the Post, it’s pretty hard to imagine that this program ensnares more drug kingpins than regular people, and that it’s not, simply, a predatory scam to deprive people of their personal property. Civil asset forfeiture violates two important tenets of the spirit of justice in the U.S.—the freedom from unreasonable search and seizure guaranteed by the Fourth Amendment, and that the burden of proof rests on the accuser. Actions like these prove once again how the police in the States view the populace—they are fighting a war and the people are the enemy.

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