Ep. 14 Civil Asset Forfeiture: When Cops Go Bad

civil asset forfeiture

Civil Asset Forfeiture

The DOJ has ended the profit sharing portion of their civil asset forfeiture program

  • Local police could keep as much as 80% of goods that are seized from alleged criminals


What is Civil Asset Forfeiture and its History


  • Civil asset forfeiture dates back to British maritime laws and were used to confiscate goods from ships there didn’t fly a British flag
  • Early congress passed this law to help tax collectors and custom officials collect duties.
    • Accounted for 90% of federal funds at the time

Relatively Unused Throughout US History

  • Exceptions being its expansion during the civil war
  • Also during prohibition to seize cars that were believed to be transporting alcohol
  • Died down again until war on drugs in the 80’s
  • Comprehensive crime control act
  • It’s a civil charge against the property

Justice Joseph Story wrote, when the supreme court originally upheld it, that the “vessel which commits the aggression is treated as the offender, as the guilty instrument or thing to which the forfeiture attachés, without any reference whatsoever to the character or conduct of the owner.”

Since it’s a civil case, it’s up to the victim to prove the innocence of his/her property rather than the state proving guilt. It’s a violation of the 14th amendment that guarantees due process.



Police in Richland, MS built a $4.1 million police station for their population of just over 7k using only money gained through civil asset forfeiture.

“It’s great to be able to say that we built that building (the police station) and built it not only today, but built it for the future with funds that aren’t taxpayer dollars,” Scarborough said. “That frees us up huge with the rest of the city. Every other department benefits from the drug seizure deal.” http://watchdog.org/218867/civil-forfeiture/

  • LA police bought a new $5 million dollar helicopter.
  • Amarillo, TX got a $600 coffee maker.
  • Reminderville, OH paid $225 for a clown

All this without proving the person whose property was taken, was even guilty.

The DOJ isn’t shutting down the civil asset forfeiture program because of corruption, rather for budget cuts. To be clear, not ending the civil asset forfeiture program, just the part that lets the police get a cut.


This may be a good thing to encourage police to use the law for its intended purpose.

  • Since they can’t keep the cash, it removes the profit motive for seizing property of innocents.
  • Maybe this way we can curtail some of the unintended consequences


Discourages reporting of crime:


  • Russell and Patricia Caswell’s motel was seized after renters used their room for drug use.
  • A very small portion of all customers they have been arrested for crimes since the assumed ownership in the 80’s
  • They did their part to report all crimes they saw
  • Now, when they get the motel back, why should they ever report anyone to the police? If they do, their motel could be confiscated again.


Examples of misuse:

  • Joseph Rivers had a dream of being a music video producer. He saved up his money for years with the help of his mom. He left his home in Michigan with $16,000 and a dream. His money was taken from him in Albuquerque, NM by federal agents. He was left without money to make it to LA or return home.
    • He was the only black person in his portion of the train and coincidentally the only one to be searched.
    • He explained his story and had it corroborated by his mother. Still, they claimed they believed it was narcotics money.
    • The head of the DEA in Albuquerque said “We don’t have to prove that the person is guilty,” Waite said. “It’s that the money is presumed to be guilty.”



What we can do



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