In this week’s New Yorker, an article titled Taken focuses on civil asset forfeiture laws utilized by law enforcement. Under federal law and in 42 states, civil-forfeiture laws allow police agencies to confiscate cash or property that they have reason to believe was obtained through “illicit means.” In most circumstances this money is then funneled back into law enforcement or state budgets.  

The article tells the story of one Houston, Texas family. On their way to buy a used car in the neighboring Tenaha, Jennifer Boatright, her boyfriend and two young sons were pulled over by local police for “driving in the left lane without passing for more than half a mile.” The officer then proceeded to ask if he could search the car. Though no drugs were found, the officer seized the cash that was to be used for the new car and a marbled-glass pipe that had been a gift from Boatright’s sister. They were then escorted to the police station and told by the county’s district attorney that they could face “felony charges of money laundering and child endangerment,” the latter of which would result in Boatright’s children being taken into Child Protective Services’ custody. However, if they agreed to sign over their cash to the city of Tenaha, no charges would be filed.

In 2009, a similar case occurred in Georgia. Following the sale of his truck to a restaurant owner in Macon, Shukree Simmons was returning to Atlanta when police stopped him. After a series of questions, the $3,700 he had received from the sale of his truck was confiscated on suspicion that it had been obtained through illegal activities. Though Simmons mailed the bill of sale to the police, he was informed that in order to have his money returned he would have to file a legal claim – the cost of which would far exceed $3,700.

In both of these cases the ACLU filed suit, helping to secure a settlement for Jennifer Boatright as part of a class action lawsuit and ensured the return of Simmon’s money. You can read more about the ACLU’s work to end asset forfeiture abuse here.

These stories are just two of countless examples. These laws open the door for system abuse – setting up a perverse set of incentives where the administration of justice becomes directly tied to profit making. These laws were originally designed to ensure that “crime wouldn’t pay,” however as we have witnessed, innocent people (unfortunately, disproportionately minorities due to racial profiling by law enforcement) are being swept into the system, facing a consequence of presumed guilt without due process.  Finally, as the system currently operates, a victim’s option for recourse is directly tied to their socio-economic status, depriving some of our most vulnerable citizens’ of their private property.

In a 2012 report titled Policing for Profit a team of national researchers graded each state on their civil asset forfeiture laws. Overall, Maine received a positive ranking. In Maine, the government must produce evidence that the property is related to a crime, however the threshold for evidence remains lower than that required to secure a criminal conviction.  Furthermore, in most cases the onus still falls on the innocent property owner to file a legal claim.

Civil asset forfeiture laws need to be reformed. Deprivation of our rights without proof of criminal activity must be put to end.