Over the last several years, as the debate about ending the drug war has grown, so has the debate about ending a practice of legal theft known as civil asset forfeiture. Civil asset forfeiture, unlike criminal asset forfeiture, does not require the person ever be charged with or convicted of any offense deemed illegal under either federal or state law. Under federal law, property may be seized based upon probable cause that the property was linked to a crime. The property owner can then challenge the seizure, and must prove to a judge that either the property was not used in connection to a crime, or that he was unaware his property was somehow used in a crime.
Unfortunately, this is something that happens all too often. Last month, Joseph Rivers was traveling from Dearborn, Michigan to Los Angeles with $16,000 and a dream on becoming a music producer. After DEA Agents boarded his train in Albuquerque, Rivers was left with a nightmare. The Albuquerque Journal reports, “A DEA agent boarded the train at the Albuquerque Amtrak station and began asking various passengers, including Rivers, where they were going and why. When Rivers replied that he was headed to LA to make a music video, the agent asked to search his bags. Rivers complied.” Adding that “Rivers was the only passenger singled out for a search by DEA agents.”
During the search, a DEA agent found bank envelopes with the cash, which Rivers said he was carrying because he’s had problems withdrawing cash from out-of-state banks. Rivers added, “I even allowed him to call my mother, a military veteran and (hospital) coordinator, to corroborate my story. Even with all of this, the officers decided to take my money because he stated that he believed that the money was involved in some type of narcotic activity… I told (the DEA agents) I had no money and no means to survive in Los Angeles if they took my money. They informed me that it was my responsibility to figure out how I was going to do that.”
Rivers was not charged with any crime in connection with this incident. Sean Waite, the head DEA agent in Albuquerque, said, “We don’t have to prove that the person is guilty. It’s that the money is presumed to be guilty.”
It’s the money, or the car, or the house, or the bottles of vintage wine, or really anything that a government agent wants to seize, as long as the agent claims there is probable cause to suspect that the property was connected to a crime. Since 2001, federal, state, and local agents nationwide have seized $2.5 billion in cash from almost 62,000 people – without warrants or indictments. As stories like the one of Joseph Rivers make headlines, the criticism of civil asset forfeiture will continue, and hopefully will bring about a change in the laws that allow government agents to steal from people. The federal policy change announced earlier this year, is of little consequence, as it only limits the ability of state and local officials to use the federal adoption method of civil asset forfeiture. There are a variety of reforms that are needed to completely prevent legalized theft by government agents, not the least of which is requiring a conviction before a seizure can occur, and also repealing all crimes that are nothing more than vices.