New report reveals civil forfeiture

by Chandra Bozelko, December 30, 2015

In its new report, “Policing for Profit,” the Institute for Justice (IJ) details exactly how law enforcement and prosecutors snatch “…hundreds of millions in cash, cars homes and other property – regardless of the owner’s guilt or innocence.”

While forfeiture is hardly a new proceeding, its use has clearly become overuse in the last 30 years if the IJ’s numbers are any indication. Annual deposits from forfeiture reached $4.5 billion, an amount almost 50 times higher than it was three decades ago.

Here’s a quick overview of how it works:

Civil forfeiture accounts for 87% of all government seizure, according to the IJ’s analysis. This fact is much more disturbing than the sheer amount of money and property involved. It means that criminal forfeiture accounts for only 13% of all government seizure of property. So almost 90% of forfeiture proceeds come from situations where citizens may have done nothing wrong: we’ve legalized plunder.

Calling civil forfeiture “one of the most controversial practices in the American criminal justice system” seems appropriate in light of the stories of victims of civil forfeiture told through the report.

  • In 2014, Charles Clarke had his life savings – $11,000 – confiscated at the Ciincinnatti/Northern Kentucky Airport when security officials thought his luggage smelled like marijuana. No drugs were ever found in his property and the mere suspicion as to why Clarke was traveling with such a large amount of cash (his bank had no local branches and his family was moving so he understandably wanted to keep his money with him) justified the seizure of every dollar the man had to his name.
  • Also in 2014, the IRS cleaned out Fairmount, North Carolina convenience store owner Lyndon McLellan’s entire business account – $107,000 – because the deposits to the account were less than $10,000 and the tax agency suspected him of “structuring” his deposits so as to evade certain reporting requirements. McLellan was not the person making the deposits – that was his niece – and she was only following the bank teller’s instructions because the smaller deposits meant less paperwork for the bank.
  • The same happened to Carole Hinders of Iowa, who deposited the proceeds of her cash only restaurant faithfully and honestly. The IRS saw a number of cash deposits and assumed that Hinders was somehow committing a crime, so the federal government’s tax arm seized $33,000 from her account.
  • Chris Sourovelis of Philadelphia almost lost his house when his son sold $40 of drugs outside his home. Sourovelis had to appear nine times in forfeiture court to keep his rightfully owned property when he hadn’t even been charged with, much less committed, any crime.

And, if these stores weren’t bad enough, the report exposes another level of insidious incentives in our forfeiture laws: equitable sharing. A program of ‘equitable sharing’ allows local and state law enforcement agencies to use federal laws to collect property for the federal government with the understanding that they will get a kick-back from the collective forfeiture pie.

There is hope that things are turning around and improving; just last week, the New York Times reported that the Department of Justice has placed the sharing program on hold because Congress took $1.2 billion dollars from the asset forfeiture program to cover budget shortfalls.

The biggest revelation of the Institute for Justice’s “Policing for Profit” report is that our justice system is no longer about public safety and stopping people who break the law. The United States has allowed justice to careen so out of control that it’s now unabashedly grabbing up the innocent and bankrupting them for the sake of government revenue.

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