Seizing cash, cars, homes and other goods from people who are never charged with crimes has become a billion-dollar enterprise for police departments and government agencies, says the author of an investigative series on the practice, which has skyrocketed during the Obama years.
The $2.5 billion in cash alone that state and local police have confiscated since 2001 without filing charges is “probably a floor,” reporter Christopher Ingraham of The Washington Post told “MidPoint” host Ed Berliner on Newsmax TV Tuesday.
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“If you tally it all up, if you look at federal agency seizures, if you look at various Justice Department seizures, the number is easily, I believe … approaching in the billions per year,” Ingraham said in a joint discussion of so-called “civil asset forfeiture” with New York lawyer and legal analyst Adam Thompson.
“How do they get away with it?” said Ingraham. “It’s perfectly legal.
“It’s called civil asset forfeiture,” he said, “and basically under civil law, what we commonly think of as our justice system is turned on its head: Under civil asset forfeiture, your items, your cash, and your possessions are presumed guilty until you prove them otherwise.”
Ingraham detailed the practice and the life-altering effects on people hit with forfeitures in a Post series last September entitled, “Stop and seize.”
In a related article published last week, he cited the case of a Detroit man who had all his savings — $16,000 in cash — seized by the DEA as he traveled west in hopes of launching a music video production company.
Civil asset forfeiture caught on as part of the war on drugs, with law enforcement agencies using it to hobble suspects financially and deprive them of the tools of their trade. Proceeds are typically plowed back into more law enforcement hires, equipment and operations.
The focus on forfeiture-based policing coincides with growing scrutiny of another trend ascribed to modern law enforcement: a culture of so-called “militarized” policing in which officers are outfitted with combat-style gear and acclimated to a warlike view of their mission.
Whatever the original intent or reasoning behind civil asset forfeiture, lawyer Thompson said he does not understand how it can possibly be considered legitimate in a system founded on the presumption of innocence.
Seizures can be contested, but many people who lose their assets never get them back, despite never being charged criminally, because they don’t know the law or don’t have the resources to hire legal help, said Thompson.
“So it just goes lost,” he said.
There is no single, specific policy of the Obama administration behind the nationwide spike in civil asset seizures, said Ingraham, just law enforcement agencies at all levels getting “really comfortable with this practice” in the absence of any curbs.
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, at the end of his tenure, placed some new restrictions on federal asset seizures.
“But it was very limited,” said Ingraham. “It only affected maybe 3 to 10 percent of the total value of assets seized.”
Thompson said it’s up to Congress to do the rest and pass a law mandating that criminal charges precede any application for civil asset forfeiture.
“A citizen’s rights shouldn’t go out the window on a whim,” he said.
Ingraham said people are reacting to his findings with surprise.
“When I talk to people about criminal justice in this country, a lot of people say, ‘You know what, I’m a law-abiding citizen. I don’t have to worry about police overreach because I follow the law, I listen to instructions,’ ” he said.
“And the striking thing to me is how few people in the United States know that this is happening,” said Ingraham.