These states let police take and keep your stuff even if you haven’t committed a crime

Vox – by German Lopez

Most states in America lets police take and keep your stuff without convicting you of a crime.

These states fully allow what’s known as “civil forfeiture”: Police officers can seize someone’s property without proving the person was guilty of a crime; they just need probable cause to believe the assets are being used as part of criminal activity, typically drug trafficking. Police can then absorb the value of this property — be it cash, cars, guns, or something else — as profit, either through state programs or under a federal program known as Equitable Sharing that lets local and state police get up to 80 percent of the value of what they seize as money for their departments.  

States' civil forfeiture laws.

So police can not only seize people’s property without proving involvement in a crime, but they have a financial incentive to do so. It’s the latter that state restrictions on civil forfeiture attempt to limit: Police should still be able to seize property as evidence. But the restrictions in some states — such as California and New Mexico — make it so, under state law, they can’t keep that property without a criminal conviction under many circumstances — and therefore won’t be able to take people’s property as easily for personal profit.

The limits on civil forfeiture vary from state to state — but federal law leaves a loophole

A minority of states limit forfeiture in different ways. For example, in New Mexico and North Carolina, a court must convict the suspect of a crime before the same judge or jury can consider whether seized property can be absorbed by the state. In Minnesota and Montana, meanwhile, a suspect must be convicted of a crime in court before the seized property can be absorbed by the state through separate litigation in civil court. And in California, the state requires a conviction for forfeiture — but only to financial seizures worth up to $25,000; a boat, airplane, or vehicle; and any real estate.

These limitations don’t entirely stop police from seizing someone’s property — cops can still do that with probable cause alone, and hold the property as evidence for trial. But the government won’t be able to absorb the property and its proceeds without convicting the suspect of a crime. This limits police seizures in two ways: It forces cops to show the suspect was actually involved in a crime after the property is seized, and it can deter future unfounded seizures for profit since police know they’ll need to prove a crime.

But local and state cops in these states can still use federal law for civil forfeiture. Lee McGrath, legislative counsel for the Institute for Justice, a national nonprofit that opposes civil forfeiture, said that police in most states with restrictions on civil forfeiture can still work with federal law enforcement officials to take people’s property without charging them with a crime. Only New Mexico limits local and state police departments’ ability to work with the federal government in forfeiture cases — by requiring the value of seized property to be more than $50,000 before federal forfeiture can be used.

There are other limitations in some states, too. Some state laws don’t let police agencies absorb proceeds from forfeitures into their own budgets, instead directing the funds to the general budget. Advocates say this helps remove the personal financial incentive police have to take and keep someone’s property. But there’s another loophole through the federal law: If local and state cops can work with federal law enforcement, they can still conduct forfeitures and their police departments can keep as much as 80 percent of the proceeds — regardless of what state law says.

civil forfeiture map

Despite the loopholes made available through the federal law, groups like the Institute for Justice have praised states for taking steps to limit civil forfeiture — a policy that has long been mired by criticisms and horror stories of police abuse.

The civil forfeiture reforms came in response to criticisms — and stories of police abuse

Critics have long argued that civil forfeiture allows law enforcement to essentially police for profit, since many of the proceeds from seizures can go back to police departments. People can get their property back through court challenges, but these cases can often be very expensive and take months or years.

The Washington Post’s Michael Sallah, Robert O’Harrow, and Steven Rich uncovered several stories in which people were pulled over while driving with cash and had their money taken despite no proof of a crime. The suspects in these cases were only able to get their property back after lengthy, costly court battles in which they showed they weren’t guilty of anything.

I’ve also covered the story of college student Charles Clarke, who was at the airport when police took his life savings of $11,000. Police said they smelled marijuana on Clarke’s bags — but they never proved the money was linked to crime, and Clarke provided documents that showed at least some of the money came from past jobs and government benefits. The Institute for Justice, which is involved in Clarke’s case, estimates that 13 different police agencies are now seeking a cut of Clarke’s money.

It’s stories like Clarke’s that have driven some states to enact reforms. But the federal government and 45 states still fully allow civil forfeiture.

“It’s ridiculous. I think it needs to change,” Clarke told me in June. “I don’t think the cops should be allowed to take somebody’s money if they haven’t committed any crime. We’re treating innocent people like criminals.”

5 thoughts on “These states let police take and keep your stuff even if you haven’t committed a crime

  1. Like I said… this is a gangster economy. You either pay us the protection money or your store front burns down.
    Killer clown parasites. Thieves in uniforms and suits and black death cult dresses in court…aka Judges.
    We’ll just take your sht at the barrel of a gun PERIOD.

    1. maybe refusal by the barrel of a gun is something these states need to see come of age

      I mean when they decide to take everything you worked for ,, thats when some will get up, ready to fight

      1. Exactly. When they come for your property or children based on Communist UN “codes” all hell needs to break loose without delay or thought.

  2. Anyone who can read plain English knows that civil forfeiture is a direct violation of the Fifth Amendment, which expressly forbids the taking of property without due process of law. The opinion of a cop is not “due process.”

    Of all the ways the government violates the Constitution, this is one of the most brazen. The Supreme Court is a complete joke for not putting a stop to civil forfeiture (among many other outrages). There is NO ambiguity regarding this matter in the Fifth Amendment; any attempt to create such is pure sophistry.

    Once again we see that a Constitution that no one enforces is a Constitution that can and will be ignored.

  3. The constables job was originally a substitute for welfare. All those clerical and security guard jobs were created for the least of us so they could still make a “living” doing something of service before straight up welfare was introduced. Now we have the least capable telling the most capable how to live according to Communist UN codes. I can see this going very wrong in the very near future for them. Welfare monkeys living on dollar store “food” don’t make for much of an army.

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