Imagine this: You get pulled over by police officers. Maybe they claim you were 7 mph over the speed limit or made an improper lane change. Doesn’t matter, because the traffic stop is only a pretext.
Using that pretext, they ask permission to search your car for drugs. You give permission and they search. Or you decline permission, but that doesn’t matter, either. They make you wait until a drug-sniffing canine can be brought to the scene, then tell you the dog has indicated the presence of drugs – and search anyway.
Now imagine that no drugs are turned up, but they do find a large sum of money and demand that you account for it. Maybe you’re going to a car auction out of state, maybe the money is a loan from a relative, maybe you just don’t trust banks. This is yet something else that doesn’t matter. They insist that this is drug money. They scratch out a handwritten receipt and, without a warrant, without an arrest, maybe without even giving you a ticket for the alleged traffic violation, they drive away with your money.
You want it back? Hire a lawyer. You might be successful – in a year or two. Or you might not. Either way, it’s going to cost you, and if the amount in question is too small, getting an attorney might not be practical. Would you spend $5,000 to (maybe) recover $4,000? No. So the police keep your money – your money – and you swallow the loss.
Never miss a local story.
You find that scenario far-fetched? It’s not fetched nearly as far as you think.
Just since 2008 there have been more than 55,000 “civil asset forfeitures” for cash and property totaling $3 billion. And for every actual drug dealer thus ensnared, there seems to be someone like Mandrel Stuart, who told the Washington Post last year that he lost his business when police seized $17,550, leaving him no operating funds. Or like Ming Tong Liu, who lost an opportunity to buy a restaurant when police took $75,000 he had raised from relatives for the purchase.
So one is heartened at the recent announcement from Attorney General Eric Holder that the federal government is largely abandoning the practice.
The civil asset forfeiture has been a weapon in the “war on drugs” since the Nixon years. Initially conceived as a way to hit big drug cartels in the wallet, it has metastasized into a Kafkaesque nightmare for thousands of ordinary Americans. Indeed, the Post reported the seizures had more than doubled under President Obama.
Now the administration is pulling back. Not that Holder’s announcement ends the practice completely – state and local governments are free to continue it on their own. What ends, or at least is sharply curtailed, is federal involvement – a program called “equitable sharing,” under which seized property was “adopted” by the feds, meaning the case was handed off to Washington, which took 20 percent off the top, the rest going into the local treasury.
Ask your local law enforcement officials if they will be following Holder’s lead. And if not, why not? Because – and this should go without saying – in a nation with a constitutional guarantee against “unreasonable searches and seizures” there is something obscene about a practice that incentivizes police to, in essence, steal money from law-abiding citizens and leaves said citizens no reasonable recourse for getting it back.
Yet this is precisely what has gone on for years without notice, much less a peep of protest from the people – proving yet again that we will countenance great violence to our basic freedoms in the name of expedience. The insult compounding the injury? The expedience didn’t even work and has had no discernible impact on the use of illegal narcotics. To the contrary, that usage has thrived under the “war on drugs.”
Sadly, the Constitution has done less well.
Leonard Pitts Jr., a columnist for the Miami Herald, appears in Opinion on Mondays.