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    Guardians or gangsters?: The dark side of civil asset forfeiture
    • October 26, 2023

    There are fundamental laws, deeply entrenched not just in culture and society but also in religious tenets, that are universally repudiated. Crimes such as murder, adultery and theft top this list. Yet, as countless unsuspecting citizens have discovered, there’s a sinister form of theft lurking in the shadows, sanctified by the very government that’s supposed to protect us: civil asset forfeiture.

    Strip this term of art and the grim reality stands exposed: Law enforcement, when corrupted, becomes a band of robbers in uniform. If you naively believe, “This won’t happen to me. After all, I’ve done no wrong,” brace yourself. More often than not, it’s the innocents who find themselves trapped, with no trial or conviction — just barefaced, brazen theft.

    To give a semblance of fairness to this discussion, yes, there might be scenarios where confiscating assets without trial is warranted, say to prevent criminals from using their ill-gotten gains. Such actions would be somewhat palatable if the assets were returned once innocence was proven, or the prosecutors didn’t indict. But alas, that’s rarely the case.

    Between 2000 and 2019, a staggering $68.8 billion was taken away through civil forfeiture. Civil forfeiture might be tolerable with stringent checks and balances. However, in its current grotesque form, it indiscriminately swallows the assets of both the innocent and the guilty. A horrifying 80% of these forfeitures are executed against individuals never even charged with crimes. The Washington Post’s 2014 investigation laid bare nearly 62,000 forfeitures executed without indictments. State law enforcement brazenly set up veritable cash-grab traps disguised as legitimate checkpoints, to raid and pillage people’s assets within their vehicles with impunity. The rationale is to discover criminal activity by looking for various “indicators,” which, as The Washington Post article reports, may be as trivial as trash found on the floor of a car, or a nervous driver.

    Take the recent case of an FBI raid on a safety deposit box facility. Under the pretense of investigating the laundering of drug money, they ransacked boxes, one of which belonged to a 79-year-old retiree who had thousands of dollars of cash saved and hundreds of thousands of dollars’ worth of gold coins. Despite being neither charged with nor accused of a crime, this man became yet another victim of the FBI’s legal piracy. He got his cash, but he had to sue the FBI to get it back, ultimately spending $40,000 on attorneys fees to do so. And his gold coins? Vanished into thin air. The FBI had no idea where they went.

    Consider the heart-wrenching saga of a Colorado couple whose only crime was owning a home that happened to be broken into by an armed shoplifting suspect. Their home became collateral damage after the police destroyed the interior with armored vehicles, explosives and bullets, and then they were slapped in the face by a judicial system that denied them compensation.

    These aren’t rare aberrations but recurring nightmares. A cursory online search paints a harrowing picture of law-abiding citizens robbed of their homes, businesses, cash, assets and vehicles by those sworn to protect them.

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    Thieves are thieves no matter whether they wear a badge or uniform. The job of law enforcement is to protect the public, not rob them blind nor use them as piggy banks to fill the coffers of their departments and agencies. How can you legitimately say that you are protecting the public when you take their assets, refuse to charge them with a crime and then make them go through a painful, expensive process to get their assets back? I urge any government official who takes a person’s money with no intent of charging them with a crime to rip their badge off their chest and seek employment elsewhere; you are not needed, you are worthless and should be ashamed to wear your badge.

    I am a staunch defender of law enforcement, but I will never defend any officer who abuses the privilege of their badge and shields themselves behind unjust civil forfeiture laws. Theft is theft, regardless of the legal jargon or post-9/11 policy contortions used to justify the laws that make it legal.

    People’s very livelihoods, their life’s work, are being ransacked and stolen. The fundamental principle of “innocent until proven guilty” is trampled by unjust laws. In the twisted world of these law enforcement officers, your assets are free game even if you’re never formally accused. We need accountability and oversight, and more certainty that innocent civilians who are never accused of crimes can get their assets back without having to ask. Innocent people shouldn’t be dragged through hell to reclaim what’s rightfully theirs.

    Armstrong Williams is a syndicated columnist

    ​ Orange County Register