Don’t trust banks to protect the money you’ve deposited? You’re hardly alone.
From a legal standpoint, the money you deposit in a bank no longer belongs to you. Instead, the bank owns it. You are merely just another one of their unsecured creditors. What’s more, in the event of future bank failures, the US government has now signed an international agreement confirming that it will not pay off depositors. Instead, it will force them to submit to a “bail-in” regime, like bank depositors in Cyprus experienced in 2013.
The bail-in scenario, on top of the lowest interest rates in 5,000 years, has led many bank depositors to make the entirely rational decision to withdraw their savings from banks. They’re taking the cash and storing it, often in a home safe. Indeed, sales of home safes are soaring worldwide.
This behavior deeply disturbs the powers that be. In response, they’ve imposed stricter and stricter controls on cash. I wrote about those controls a year and a half ago, and since then, it’s only gotten worse.
In the US, one strategy the government uses to discourage people from holding cash is civil forfeiture. Under this Alice-in-Wonderland legal process, cops can seize your cash – or anything else you own – if they believe that it’s somehow connected to a crime… any crime. You don’t need to be convicted, accused, or even arrested for a crime to lose everything you own.
Consider the case of Emiliano Gomez Gonzolez. During a traffic stop, Nebraska state troopers asked Gonzolez for permission to search his vehicle. During the search, the troopers found bundles of currency totaling $124,700. Based on a dog sniffing narcotics residue on the cash, police seized all the money. This is hardly “proof” that the cash is the proceeds of illegal drug sales; more than 90% of US bills actually contain traces of cocaine.
Gonzolez contested the forfeiture in court. Prosecutors neither convicted nor accused Gonzolez or any of the other owners of the seized cash of any crime. Nor did police find any drugs, drug paraphernalia, or drug records connected to the cash. Despite these facts, a federal appeals court upheld the confiscation of every dollar found in the vehicle.
Gonzolez was an exception because he fought the seizure of his cash. Most defendants don’t because the burden of proof is reversed in a civil forfeiture case. In a criminal proceeding, you have the right to be presumed innocent until a jury finds you guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” If police seize your property in a civil forfeiture, it’s “presumed guilty.” It’s up to you to prove that it’s not associated with a crime. That’s a tall order and a big reason why 80% of forfeiture cases go uncontested.
The procedural rules governing forfeiture cases are also very complex. Only a handful of attorneys are familiar with them, and they charge accordingly for this knowledge. The last time I checked, I couldn’t find an attorney willing to help a client reclaim wrongfully seized property from police for a retainer under $20,000. If you’re poor, like most victims of civil forfeiture, there’s no way you’ll be able to come up with the money to contest the seizure.
The biggest reason cops love civil forfeiture is that the seizing agency generally gets to use the seized property for its own purposes. It’s literally “policing for profit.” While each state has its own rules for what cops can buy with the money they confiscate, pretty much anything goes:
- Milwaukee County sheriffs invested $25,000 in forfeited monies for “customer service training” from the Disney Institute.
- Police in Bal Harbour, Florida, with an estimated 2014 population of 2,633, spent $23,000 flying first class to Chicago, Las Vegas, and Los Angeles. On arrival, they drove in style in deluxe vehicles such as a Cadillac SRX and a Lincoln Town Car. The police department later spent $7,000 on a banquet and $21,000 on an “anti-drug beach bash.”
- Romulus, Michigan’s police chief used forfeited assets to buy a $75,000 tanning salon for his wife. He spent another $40,000 on marijuana, alcohol, and prostitutes.
- A Texas district attorney spent $267,449 in forfeited assets on travel expenses, including numerous junkets to casinos.
- Another Texas district attorney treated his office and their spouses to Hawaii for a “law conference.” He paid for it with $27,000 in asset forfeiture proceeds.
- The sheriff of Camden County, Georgia, used $90,000 of forfeited assets to buy a Dodge Viper for the county’s Drug Awareness and Resistance Education (DARE) program. He also paid prison inmates $35,000 to build a “very nice party house” for himself.
Admittedly, a few of these purchases broke even the very lax rules for the permissible use of seized assets. For instance, in 2014, the former police chief of Romulus, Michigan, was sent to prison. He and five other officers allegedly embezzled more than $100,000.
But it’s not just state and local governments that are getting in on all the fun. Federal law has authorized civil forfeiture since the dawn of the Republic more than two centuries ago. And it’s become quite profitable. The Department of Justice alone seized more than $4.5 billion in 2014. It’s just one of many federal agencies with the authority to confiscate property under federal civil forfeiture laws.
That should come as no surprise. In 1989, the Supreme Court actually ruled the federal government has a legitimate financial interest to maximize forfeiture revenues. Since then, federal agencies have developed highly sophisticated techniques to do just that.
Take the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), for instance. Earlier this year, an investigation revealed that the DEA routinely carries out “data mining” of Americans’ travel information to build profiles of individuals who might be carrying large sums of cash. Using a nationwide network of travel industry informants, the DEA gives special attention to individuals who meet secret “drug courier” profiles, such as buying one-way tickets or purchasing their tickets with cash. Amtrak and airline employees who pass information on to the DEA are eligible for generous commissions if the tip leads to a seizure.
Over the last decade, the agency has seized at least $209 million in cash from 5,200 passengers. In the vast majority of cases, the passengers weren’t arrested; they were given a receipt for the seized cash and sent on their way. For instance, of 1,600 DEA forfeitures in Los Angeles in the last 10 years, only one was in connection with a criminal investigation.
Are you outraged? You should be – and it’s probably about to get worse. President-elect Donald Trump has proposed a “Restoring Community Safety Act” that he claims will reduce “surging” crime in America’s cities. But the fact is that violent crime nationwide has actually been falling for the last 25 years. Given the love affair police at all levels of government have for civil forfeiture, it’s inconceivable that a Trump anti-crime bill won’t further unleash the forfeiture squads on America.