Over the past decade police have been using civil forfeiture to decrease the power of large gangs and reduce the amount of drugs circulating the streets. Civil forfeiture is a process that allows law enforcement to seize the property and belongings of individuals suspected of being involved in some illegal activity, but haven’t actually been charged with anything. This law was passed after 9/11 as a way to increase safety, and since then there have been 61,998 cash seizures. These seizures were conducted without a warrant or any real probable cause and totalled 2.5 billion dollars; the police departments kept over 68% of the money (Rich). While civil forfeiture has helped police reduce drug trafficking, the problems that have arisen are overwhelming the past benefits. The police are misusing their power, there are almost no regulations on forfeited property, and innocent people are being taken advantage of.
Now, a common question police ask during traffic stops is “How much money is in the vehicle?”. This question is aimed at people with large amounts of cash suspected of using that money to buy drugs. However, many people have falsely accused. The Washington Post did an in depth investigation on personal accounts of people who have been victims of corrupt civil forfeiture. Mandrel Stuart was driving from Michigan to San Francisco, California to start a new job, and his father had given him $2,400 to set up his new life. He was pulled over as part of a routine traffic stop, and the officer asked how much money he was carrying. When the Stuart answered the question, the officer said he needed to conduct a canine search of the vehicle. The police officer concluded that the money’s intended purpose was to buy drugs and for that reason it can be confiscated by the state (Sallah). Stuart was forced to try and start up his new life without any means of survival. This is just one story of how unlawful civil forfeiture can be. These storie get worse when you look at how hard it is to fight these laws and seeing how police departments used the seized property.
Most DA and police departments actually get to keep the money and property seized. In fact, in Tennessee, the DA can keep up to 100% of what they take (Sher), and this money is not always put to good use. In Columbia, Missouri, a review board hearing of the police department was quite telling. On a C-Span live broadcast, an unnamed officer was explaining the spending procedure for seized money, and it’s a little shocking.
Board member: “How do you decide forfeiture funds?”
Officer: “You know, it’s usually Based on the need uh- well I take that back”
Board member: “And I imagine you sign off”
Officer: ““Yeah there’s some limitations on it. You know, um, actually there’s not really any on the forfeiture stuff.” … “The stuff we buy is, well, we just usually base it on something that would be nice to have that we can’t get in the budget for instance. We try not to use it for things that we need to depend on you know ‘cause we need to have those purchased, but it’s kind of like pennies from heaven, you know. It gets you a toy or something you need.” This just shows that the motivation behind civil forfeiture can be completely corrupt. The state is stealing money from civilians and putting the money to personal use, and the people losing everything can almost never get it back.
The redemption process on civil forfeitures is as long and convoluted as you may imagine. Take the Sourvelis family for example. Their son,Yianni, was arrested for selling $40 worth of drugs from his parents house. After he was arrested, police prosecutors came to the residence with a lawsuit against the house itself because the family couldn’t be charged with anything (Brown). The Sourvelises had to go down to the courtroom to fight and they didn’t even have a judge hearing over their case. Instead, they had to fill out paperwork and just wait. Eight days later, they were finally let back into their house -with one heartbreaking condition: their son would never be allowed back in. Markella Sourvelis explained how this law affected him and his family, “To me I’m home, but I feel violated at this point. I’m doing things in my house, but I worry is it always going to be my house? Are they going to take it one day like that (Brown)?” Are civil forfeitures helping us enough?
Is it time to take another look at these laws? There are plenty of examples of people’s lives being ruined for little to no reason, and it’s time to revise and strengthen regulations on civil forfeitures.