Theft of property: Police abuse the nation's civil forfeiture laws

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In America, people have long felt -- and have taught their children -- that if they obey the law, they have no reason to fear the police. Not anymore.

In last week's issue of The New Yorker magazine, staff writer Sarah Stillman chronicles the abuse of state and federal civil forfeiture laws and how police agencies use them to seize billions of dollars in assets from citizens who have never been convicted of or even charged with crimes.

For decades, law enforcement agencies have used forfeiture laws as a way to replenish their coffers. The original intention of the laws was to enable local, state and federal law enforcement to confiscate cash or property obtained through illicit means that otherwise would be funneled back into crime-fighting efforts.

Initially, the idea of criminals partially underwriting police efforts to bust them with their own assets appealed to America's sense of justice.

The problem is civil forfeiture laws are being abused by the very people sworn to uphold them. Ms. Stillman chronicles the harrowing stories of people, usually poor and unable to fight back, whose assets were taken even though they were innocent or had only a tangential connection to crime.

The examples are infuriating. An elderly couple in Philadelphia had their home seized after their son allegedly sold $20 worth of grass on the front porch. A church secretary in Virginia had $28,500 in church donations confiscated by the highway patrol because he was caught speeding.

Under civil forfeiture laws, citizens don't have to be found guilty to forfeit their assets. It is a very large loophole that law enforcement agencies are more than happy to exploit to the tune of $4.2 billion annually.

Citizens can appeal the seizure of their assets and the violation of their Fourth Amendment rights, but the odds are against those who do, even if they're innocent. ProPublica, a nonprofit that does investigative journalism in the public interest, estimates that of the 2,000 civil forfeiture cases brought in Philadelphia between 2008 and 2012, only 30 resulted in a judge returning assets to a civilian.

The way that law enforcement applies civil forfeiture laws in these examples is an affront to justice, human decency and the Constitution. The story of how these laws became oppressive is only now beginning to be told. Only when the public becomes aware of how this legal tool has been corrupted will lawmakers be able to take the steps needed to end its abuse.

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