Police Departments Have ‘Wish Lists’ for Asset Forfeiture

In case you didn’t think the civil asset forfeiture laws in this country were appalling enough, the New York Times reports that police departments often have “wish lists” of specific types of things they’d like to seize, especially really nice cars (they can sell them for more, of course).

The seminars offered police officers some useful tips on seizing property from suspected criminals. Don’t bother with jewelry (too hard to dispose of) and computers (“everybody’s got one already”), the experts counseled. Do go after flat screen TVs, cash and cars. Especially nice cars.

In one seminar, captured on video in September, Harry S. Connelly Jr., the city attorney of Las Cruces, N.M., called them “little goodies.” And then Mr. Connelly described how officers in his jurisdiction could not wait to seize one man’s “exotic vehicle” outside a local bar.

“A guy drives up in a 2008 Mercedes, brand new,” he explained. “Just so beautiful, I mean, the cops were undercover and they were just like ‘Ahhhh.’ And he gets out and he’s just reeking of alcohol. And it’s like, ‘Oh, my goodness, we can hardly wait.’ ”

Mr. Connelly was talking about a practice known as civil asset forfeiture, which allows the government, without ever securing a conviction or even filing a criminal charge, to seize property suspected of having ties to crime. The practice, expanded during the war on drugs in the 1980s, has become a staple of law enforcement agencies because it helps finance their work. It is difficult to tell how much has been seized by state and local law enforcement, but under a Justice Department program, the value of assets seized has ballooned to $4.3 billion in the 2012 fiscal year from $407 million in 2001. Much of that money is shared with local police forces…

Much of the nuts-and-bolts how-to of civil forfeiture is passed on in continuing education seminars for local prosecutors and law enforcement officials, some of which have been captured on video. The Institute for Justice, which brought the videos to the attention of The Times, says they show how cynical the practice has become and how profit motives can outweigh public safety.

In the sessions, officials share tips on maximizing profits, defeating the objections of so-called “innocent owners” who were not present when the suspected offense occurred, and keeping the proceeds in the hands of law enforcement and out of general fund budgets. The Times reviewed three sessions, one in Santa Fe, N.M., that took place in September, one in New Jersey that was undated, and one in Georgia in September that was not videotaped.

Officials offered advice on dealing with skeptical judges, mocked Hispanics whose cars were seized, and made comments that, the Institute for Justice said, gave weight to the argument that civil forfeiture encourages decisions based on the value of the assets to be seized rather than public safety. In the Georgia session, the prosecutor leading the talk boasted that he had helped roll back a Republican-led effort to reform civil forfeiture in Georgia, where seized money has been used by the authorities, according to news reports, to pay for sports tickets, office parties, a home security system and a $90,000 sports car.

If any of this surprises you, you’re not nearly cynical enough.

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  • illdoittomorrow

    I’m almost never surprised at state-sponsored gangsterism, but I’m often surprised by casual they are about it. I don’t have the right mindset to understand it, I suppose- I default to thinking the brazenly criminal at least put a token effort into not getting caught.

  • https://www.facebook.com/danny.butts.52 Danny Butts

    I dont know how it works in the US, but in the UK the registration number of the car is tied to the address of the owner.

    That Ferrari might look like a steal at the police auction, but 5 years later when Mr Big is knocking on your door wanting it back…

  • comfychair

    Piracy is to civil asset forfeiture as torture is to enhanced interrogation techniques. Call it what it really is, please.

  • smrnda

    So, police are basically a crime and extortion racket?

  • freemage

    You know, as infuriating as the current practice is, I hardly ever hear folks point out the other side of it–the way it is NOT applied, in so many cases where it would actually fit. Most white-collar crime, for instance, entails people who got rich off of their criminal activities. Usually, the government just goes for a fine and maybe, at most, a light jail sentence. But imagine how much, say, NY or Chicago could do to balance their budgets with just a few well-timed forfeitures for illegal business practices….

    But no, let’s go after some barrio-dwellers shiny ride. That makes sense.

  • laurentweppe

    You’re making me feel weird for living in a country where police departments which indulge in rackets can be shut down overnight once the racket becomes public knowledge.

  • comfychair

    Danny Butts @ #2:

    No, we use our license plates much the same as the UK does tax discs. It’s done on a state-by-state basis, and the numbers change so often I currently cannot tell you just from memory what the number on my tag is right now, I would have to go outside and look or dig up the most recent receipt.

    more: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vehicle_registration_plates_of_the_United_States

    My state has special ‘Antique’ tags for cars older than 25 years, those are only issued once, for a one-time fee, and don’t need to be renewed yearly (essentially, there’s no road tax at all on those once it’s got the antique tag).

  • mithrandir

    I think it says something that civil forfeiture is too repulsive for even the Georgia Republican Party to stomach… and too entrenched for even them to reform.

  • http://www.gregory-gadow.net Gregory in Seattle

    @comfychair #3 – It is not piracy when done under aegis of government: it is privateering.

  • http://withinthismind.com/ WithinThisMind
  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=611455454 David Hart


    I default to thinking the brazenly criminal at least put a token effort into not getting caught.

    You only need to worry about being caught if you expect to be punished.

  • plutosdad

    This is straight out of the Shield when Mackey sent out everyone to go find him a nice new car.

  • lordshipmayhem

    I’m hoping they put “gods” on that wish list. Nobody’s ever seen one before, so it would be nice to have some sort of evidence that one – any one – actually exists.

  • Crimson Clupeidae

    So they just need to drop the pretense and issue Letters of Marque.

  • sc_770d159609e0f8deaa72849e3731a29d

    Letters of Marque were issued by a state at war. Who are the US police at war with?

    Oh. I see. Everyone else in the USA…

    What stops the police confiscating the property of banks which have actually admitted committing crimes?

  • wscott

    @ freemage #5: Civil forfeiture does get used in white collar cases. In fact, I believe that’s where the practice originated. You don’t hear about them as much because 1) there are FAR more drug cases than white collar cases at the local level, and 2) Federal forfeiture laws are considerably less prone to abuse (for example, the seizing agency doesn’t get to keep the money – it all goes into the Treasury), which means 3) they don’t get as much press. And of course 4) white collar criminals generally know their rights, can afford attorneys, etc.