In 2014, the federal government confiscated some $4.5 billion from Americans through civil asset forfeiture, according to a recent report from the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit libertarian law and research organization.
That’s a figure which has been growing rapidly in recent years—as recently as 2008 it was “just” $1.5 billion, and there’s compelling evidence that law enforcement agencies use this license to bolster their budgets in lean years.
In the words of one officer, civil asset forfeiture funds are “kind of like pennies from heaven. It gets you a toy or something that you need is the way that we typically look at it to be perfectly honest.”
That $4.5 billion figure is shocking on its own. But it’s even more shocking when you put it in this perspective: in that same year, FBI records show burglars took only $3.9 billion from Americans.
So in 2014, the federal government took more money and stuff from Americans than actual burglars did. Our government is “getting really good at separating the citizen from their property — not just really good, criminally good.”
This comparison is even more appalling when you consider that many people whose money or stuff is taken through civil asset forfeiture are never charged or convicted with any crime. That’s because it essentially allows a police officer who finds you “suspicious” to just take your stuff.
Once your property has been confiscated, the burden of proof is on you, not the police, to show that you didn’t get it from any criminal activity. Even if you personally are cleared of all charges, that may not matter. As the Philadelphia City Paper reports, “Technically, it’s the property—not its owner—that’s being accused of criminality, which means the property can be subject to forfeiture whether or not its owner is ever convicted of a crime.”
In other words, they don’t have to charge you. They don’t have to present any evidence of illegal activity. In fact, you have no right to a lawyer and won’t get a day in court. In some jurisdictions, you actually have to pay thousands of dollars just to be able to contest the seizure.
And guess what? The police conveniently happen to consider large amounts of cash very suspicious indeed—but not too suspicious to dump it right into their own department coffers.
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