Asset Forfeiture Primer


facebook_debateRecently there was a flurry of comments on a Facebook debate regarding the merits of Asset Forfeiture, presumably both civil and criminal. Since I am very familiar with the debaters I felt compelled to attempt to educate them in what asset forfeiture is all about and hopefully dispel some of their misconceptions. Although I know that a number of readers of this blog are Law Enforcement Professionals, I want to stress that this article is not designed to educate you as a group. I would think you would find that insulting. I am directing this article to the uninformed masses so they may become better informed citizens and realize the potential value of the asset forfeiture programs. I would like law enforcement to read this and correct me should I be wrong.

It is beyond the scope of this article to fully explain the ins and outs of the program. If you wish to further research, I suggest you read the article at The Center For Problem-Oriented Policing, which goes into great detail. The article is written, and I quote, “The target audience for this response guide is, first and foremost, any law enforcement official who is contemplating starting an asset forfeiture program in his or her agency. This guide also serves as a refresher for those currently engaged in the practice. Finally, researchers and others who are interested in the issues surrounding asset forfeiture should find this guide helpful.”That article should answer most questions about asset forfeiture, its strengths and weaknesses, and the value to the community.

That being said, I feel compelled to bring up several points that I would think should be obvious, but sometimes seems to get lost in the muck and mire of having a common sense approach to life. First, I would like to strongly urge all persons not to attempt to become informed citizens by watching a British comedian discuss asset forfeiture or other important events in our culture. I submit the comedy Channel is not a reliable news source. Comedy, by its very nature, exaggerates, overstates, over simplifies, minimizes, and maximizes certain facts and truths, not for the sake of the news, but for the sake of the comedic effect. If a comedian simply related the facts of the story it would probably not generate much laughter and the comedian would find him or her self looking for a different line of work. Simply put, their objective is to entertain, not to educate. The comedy bit may many aware of a social issue and that was good. The responsibility to further research and become educated on the issue then fell on the individual. That responsibility is too often overlooked. I cannot stress this enough, first the research, then the debate.

Another point that caught my attention, and what seems to have many up in arms, were the video clips associated with the comedy bit showing police Officers inquiring of citizens whether they happened to have a large amount of cash on them. It then discussed those poor individuals who had all their money confiscated by the big, bad, policeman who had no right to do so. Let me point out a few misconceptions this type of video clip may bring about. It needs to be pointed out that video clips are moments taken out of context. One is not privy to what let up to, or immediately followed the incident in the clip. First off, there are remedies available for any citizen who feel that their property was unlawfully obtained by a law enforcement agency. They cannot just take your property and that is the end of the story. Criminal forfeiture requires a “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard of proof, and civil forfeiture requires a “preponderance of evidence” standard of proof. Typically you will not see incidents whereby some poor citizen has lost all they have because they were discovered with a joint in their pocket.

This paragraph will probably not be well accepted bf my law enforcement comrades, so feel free to fast forward, should you so desire. With regards to the persons who answer “yes” when asked if they had a large sum of money I can only ask the question, why? One is not compelled to respond to that type of question. In the first place, a “large sum of money” is ambiguous as it means different things to different people. Consider this scenario at a traffic stop: “Excuse me sir, but do you have a dead body in your trunk?”, “why yes, Officer. I am so glad you asked, it was getting pretty ripe back there and I really needed the room for groceries”. One would not respond yes to the body in the trunk question and one should probably not respond yes to the large sum of money question. This type of obfuscation is common when an officer asks an individual if they have been drinking. Know your rights and know to what questions you are required to respond. If you are truly worried that a police officer is going to come and take your house away because they saw you toking up on your front porch, the answer is quite simple, don’t toke up on your front porch.

One final point about asset forfeiture. A great deal of good comes from the program. How this money can be used is highly regulated by law. Money is infused into the budgets of financially strapped police departments. This money is used to offset the cost of the ravages of the drug war. The money obtained directly, or through property auction is used to fight the drug war, either through purchase of equipment for that purpose, training, or public education programs such as DARE. I have seen times when a drug dealers car is re-purposed to be used by officers traveling to various schools to do drug awareness training. You have to admit, there is a certain poetic justice to that. You tell me, if a person with no visible means of support or on welfare, driving a $50,000 automobile and living in a $250,000 house, and not being required to pay taxes on their non-income, do you think a reasonable person would suspect that just maybe all of that was purchased from ill-gotten gains? Do you think this type of individual should be held accountable for their actions? You decide.


Those are my thoughts, what are yours?

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Tom Lind

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