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Cop Shops and Civil Forfeiture Scandals

civil forfeitureNew Orleans    One of our continuing definitions of humanity has to be our ability to still be surprised and shocked at injustice.   Reading an article by Sarah Stillman in the New Yorker entitled “Taken” about the criminal scams being pulled off right and left, high and low by police departments to seize the money, property, and valuables of innocent people and their relatives without any charges, investigation, or never mind was incredible.  I was left over and over saying to myself, “How could this happen here?!?”

            One of the more dramatic stories was about a scam being pulled by the city attorney and police in a community called Tenaha along US highway 59 that runs north and south in East Texas.  I’ve been through there many a time, particularly in the old days driving from Little Rock to Houston.  You can’t avoid it.

            Turns out if you were in a rental car, were not lily white, and looked like an easy mark because you were a working stiff or whatever, odds were good that you might be pulled over on the least excuse and shaken down for every dollar and item of value you might have on a “cash-for-freedom” deal.  They didn’t mind threatening to take your children as well.  The cops and the city attorney would put you over a barrel saying you could be caught in an endless legal grist mill or you could let them have what they were ready to steal.  Oh, do you think I’m exaggerating here?   In fact I’m probably understating the case, because a bunch of these victims finally tied up together with a local attorney and won a class action suit ordering the cops to stop all of this.  Don’t get me wrong.   There wasn’t justice, because none of them got their money or belongings back, but at least some folks in the future might be able to more safely drive through Tenaha.

            But they were not alone.  Stillman went through a depressing list of police departments at all levels that are using civil forfeiture to pad their budgets, sometimes their pockets, and fill holes in department spending for real police work.  Philadelphia is on this list, so is Maricopa County, but why list them individually, it seems like most all of them are in on it.   Only North Carolina has now passed a law saying that civil forfeiture cannot be invoked until guilt is actually proven. 

            This kind of law was originally intended to insure that drug dealers, the Madoffs, and others wouldn’t get away with the filthy lucre from their crimes, but now it’s a train wreck out of control.  And, not surprisingly, disproportionately the victims are the young and the elderly, Latinos, African-Americans and lower income and working people.

            There ought to be a law and one that works within our fundamental beliefs that someone is innocent until proven guilty, and that means the police and others cannot steal from them until a court determines their guilt.   How hard is that for our governments and their agents to live by?

  • Ruth Rinehart

    Wade, this law enforcement strategy is well-explained and documented in Michelle Alexander’s book, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. What must occur is a multi-racial alliance against the War on Drugs, and mitigating the life-long consequences for felons of navigating the justice system. This strategy was consciously implemented to control people of color and the poor. And, what a ride they’ve had! Who wants to stand up for criminals? It’s far too easy for privileged white folks to look the other way.