Police departments have been revenue generators for cities for a long time, from speed traps to ticket quotas. The practice of using “protect and serve” as “fund the local government” is hardly shocking. And it’s one of the pieces of kindling that stoked the fire in Ferguson, Missouri.
But when Baltimore brings in roughly $2 million in cash annually from random seizures — often outside the normal order of policing and without proving a crime was committed — there’s a problem.
Cash seized by Baltimore police / cash returned
2013: $2.4M / $0
2014: $1.8M / $245K
2015: $1.8M / $91K
2016: $2M / $153K
2017: $2.4M / $152K
5-year total: $10.3M / $643K
Source: BPD data presented to City Council today
— Luke Broadwater (@lukebroadwater) March 27, 2018
Baltimore posts these amazing profits through a practice called “civil asset forfeiture.” People can have their property seized by police without having been charged with a crime. Objects seized are themselves the subject of criminal proceedings, and objects are not innocent until proven guilty.
Asset forfeiture sometimes does bring about objectively good results. It has been an asset in fighting criminal organizations and drug cartels and also was could be used to take ‘Pharma Bro’ Martin Shkreli’s copy of the Wu Tang Clan album “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin” away (which was, honestly, a victory for the American people).
Most people who lose assets to this program aren’t criminals or morally bankrupt human beings like Shkreli, though. Most of them aren’t even charged with crimes.
The same thing happened to hundreds of Michiganders, whose cash, cell phones and cars are routinely seized by police despite never being convicted of or charged with crimes.
A person wronged by civil asset forfeiture must go to court to try and prove their property innocent. Otherwise, the property is either kept or sold by law enforcement.
It isn’t just municipalities that engage in civil forfeiture, either. Last year, the Department of Justice (DOJ) reinstated its aggressive civil forfeiture policies.
On Sunday, the law firm K&L Gates advised in a statement that the DOJ will continue aggressively pursuing asset forfeiture even, potentially, against businesses with no connection to crimes, warning that just receiving cash believed to be related to a crime at some point in its history exposes a business to potentially losing that cash, physical assets and even real estate.
“In a civil asset forfeiture proceeding, the government only has the burden to prove that it is more likely than not that an individual’s assets were used to facilitate a federal crime or were the proceeds of a federal crime,” the statement read. “It also does not matter if the company was involved in the commission of the crime; rather, forfeiture may apply to a company that only learns (or deliberately avoids learning) about the tainted source of its assets after the fact.”
And with the combination of local, state and federal law enforcement getting in on the game, in 2014 more money had been taken by law enforcement than by burglars.
How is this not a flagrant violation of the Fourth Amendment’s protections against unreasonable search and seizure without due process? An analysis published all the way back in 1986 in the Yale Law and Policy Review argued it was. Conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas even signaled his thought that civil asset forfeiture is unconstitutional. The ACLU is surprisingly on the same side as Thomas, working to rein in the rampant abuses justified under civil asset forfeiture.
And although some parts of the government are doubling down on this dubious practice, others are fighting it.
Justice Thomas and the ACLU are a prime example of how opposition to civil asset forfeiture crosses partisan lines.
In the example of those hundreds of affected Michiganders, the state is looking at changes requiring a person be convicted of a crime before their assets can be seized. If that law passed, it would join 14 other states with policies that restrict civil asset forfeiture.
Awareness on this issue is also on the rise, thanks in part to HBO’s comedy and policy analysis Last Week Tonight, which ran an expose on civil asset forfeiture in 2014.
So while Attorney General Jeff Sessions has doubled down on civil asset forfeiture, while Baltimore citizens are being ransacked for $2 million in cash each year, and while Michigan struggles to shake off the yoke of its own civil asset forfeiture practices, at least we can laugh at an old John Oliver bit and take solace in the fact that Pharma Bro lost that Wu Tang album.
Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.