I've been writing a bit about the corrosive effect of the War on Drugs over the past few weeks. Yesterday, the local paper (via the Chicago Tribune) had an article about one of the more egregious examples of a collateral effect of the drug war, forfeiture laws.
Forfeiture laws - the exist on both state and federal levels - allow law enforcement to seize assets that are related to drug crimes. In theory, it's to provide an additional disincentive to the dealers, who will not only be thrown in prison but will also come out poor. But the mechanism for doing so is completely bass ackward:
Forfeitures, however, can fall into two categories--criminal or civil--and due to some high-profile abuses, civil asset forfeiture has become extremely controversial. Under criminal law, the government can seize property as punishment only after its owner has been convicted of a crime, and our justice system ensures that they are considered innocent until proven guilty. But under civil law, it is the property itself--not the owner--that is charged with involvement in a crime. What's more, that property is considered "guilty" until proven innocent in court by its owner, thus turning our usual system of justice on its head.It's a system ripe for the type of abuse, which, according to the Tribune fortune, is currently happening in rural Texas:
That's because the police here allegedly have found a way to strip motorists, many of them black, of their property without ever charging them with a crime. Instead they offer out-of-towners a grim choice: voluntarily sign over your belongings to the town, or face felony charges of money laundering or other serious crimes.The cops insist that this isn't about making money, but of course they keep the lion's share of the loot. The Supreme Court has rightly concluded that making a magistrate's pay dependent on the number of warrants he issues violates the Fourth Amendment. Similarly, you'd think a system so stacked in favor of the folks keeping the money wouldn't pass muster.
More than 140 people reluctantly accepted that deal from June 2006 to June 2008, according to court records. Among them were a black grandmother from Akron, who surrendered $4,000 in cash after Tenaha police pulled her over, and an interracial couple from Houston, who gave up more than $6,000 after police threatened to seize their children and put them into foster care, the court documents show. Neither the grandmother nor the couple were charged with any crime.