October 7, 2014
Civil forfeiture was authorized in 1988 and represents one of the most blatant assaults on private property rights today. Under civil forfeiture, police can seize your home, car, cash or other property without charging you with a crime. All the police need is the mere suspicion that your property may have some connection to criminal activity. You can forget about being innocent until proven guilty because with civil forfeiture, your property is guilty until you prove it innocent.
So, where does the money go? Most law enforcement agencies keep 90 percent or more of the profits from assets they seize. In 2011, The Justice Department raked in $1.8 billion in assets, and gave away nearly half a billion dollars to local police departments. According to a report by Forbes, "This money may be used for better equipment, nicer offices, newer vehicles, trips to law enforcement conventions and, in states like Texas, even police salaries."
According to the government, "Many criminals are motivated by greed and the acquisition of material goods, therefore, the ability of the government to forfeit property connected with criminal activity can be an effective law enforcement tool by reducing the incentive for illegal conduct." The sentence should read: "Many cops and government officials are motivated by greed and the acquisition of material goods, therefore, the ability of the government to steal property connected with criminal activity can be an effective law enforcement tool to dramatically increase their own salaries."
Russ Caswell, a 72 year old business owner from Massachusetts, learned the perils of civil forfeiture when the government seized his entire business, a motel worth nearly $2 million, without so much as a warning. Caswell states, “I’ve never been charged with any crime in my whole life. As I learned firsthand though, the government has the power to seize property if it’s linked to a crime even if the owners are completely innocent.”
The Drug Enforcement Administration seized Caswell's motel under civil property forfeiture regulations because the agency claimed illegal activity was taking place at the establishment. However, to back this claim the government pointed to a mere 15 arrests out of more than 200,000 rooms rented during the last 14 years by the Caswells. A DEA agent revealed to Caswell that their process included seeking out places that were linked to drug arrests, but they would only try to seize properties that had at least $50,000 in equity. Caswell said, “It was like a light went off. Now I get what this is about and it’s not about drugs at all. It’s about stealing people’s property.”
The Institute for Justice, a nonprofit public-interest law firm, learned of Caswell’s case and decided to help. By the time they took the case pro bono, the Caswells had already spent nearly $100,000 in legal bills trying to keep their motel. Finally, after a long and expensive legal fight, a federal judge ruled against the government and stopped the forfeiture on Caswell's motel. The government then had to pay back nearly $1,000,000 in legal fees that were racked up during the trial.
Soon after, Caswell sold his motel claiming that even before the nightmare of a legal process came to his doorstep, he was ready to retire and take care of his ailing wife. Caswell told reporters, "The place sold for $2 million. That’s what they were after. They were after the money. To me, it’s just sickening. Here are the people who are supposed to be protecting us, and instead they’re stealing from us.” You can read Caswell's full story here.
In a time when the government not only allows but supports such unjust laws as this, it is vital to stay informed with the truth. Watch the short videos below to hear how others have been raped by civil forfeiture and learn how it could affect you.