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Is Asset Forfeiture Legal Stealing?

Posted By Berry Law Firm || 8-Apr-2016

Asset forfeiture is the process of law enforcement agents seizing property from an individual during an arrest, and then a United States attorney prosecutor successfully keeping it for the government’s own use afterwards. Even if no conviction is garnered for the suspected crime that led to the arrest, the seized property can be kept forever by the government if the asset forfeiture case does not pan out in the suspect’s favor. Where is the line drawn between collecting evidence for a criminal investigation and Uncle Sam simply wanting to take your stuff? Recent statistics suggest that it is blurring more and more by the year.

Between 1989 and 2010, about $12.6 billion worth of assets and property were collected through asset forfeiture. If this already seems ludicrous to you, make certain you are sitting down for these next facts. Within just one year’s timespan (2009 to 2010), the value of property collected through asset forfeiture increased more than 50%, totaling a yearly value equivalent to 600% of the amount in taken 1989. In 2014, the number escalated even further and caught the attention of every litigator within the country; in that year, the United States government used asset forfeiture strategies and cases to collect and keep about $4.5 billion of “suspect” property.

With such a high number value of property being seized and collected, people cannot help but ask if law enforcement agents are still serving and protecting the American people in asset forfeiture cases. The Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) claims burglars took just under $4 billion in property in 2014. With this statistic in mind, the police are now taking and keeping more assets than criminals. In Washington, D.C., the widespread use of suspicious asset forfeitures has apparently gotten so bad that a class action lawsuit has been filed against the city’s police department. The lawsuit claims officers were seizing as little as $100 out of the pockets of people on the street and calling it evidence of “drug money”.

Is America’s Statecraft on the Decline?

Beyond what you could arguably call a “typical” asset forfeiture case, there has been a growing concern over what is known as “stop-and-seize” (S&S) practices or events. During an S&S, police will stop a person and take their property without even making an arrest at the end, and without any hint at having a warrant. Some people argue that this is just one of many indicators that the country’s statecraft, or the ability to fairly and efficiently manage governmental affairs, is in decline, as if it was headed back for the Wild West.

Our blog has discussed before the threat to the public’s wellbeing that money forfeiture cases create. Police can bring in a drug sniffing dog, allege that it picks up the scent of narcotics on money in your vehicle or home, and take it then and there without making an arrest. If they seize less than a few thousand dollars, the victim might decide that paying court fees and spending hours or days at scheduled court dates is not worth the trouble; after all, they might not get the money back, or even be given the option. If they were coerced into signing a waiver that abandons their right to the money, it can be gone for good. And just like that, the police have added some extra revenue to their department, which brings us to the next question on peoples’ minds.

What Motivates the Police in Stop-and-Seize Events?

Despite the troubling nature of asset forfeiture and how it may hint at police force abuse, most of us still believe that most police officers and United States attorneys are good people who do a good job, and that they deserve higher pay. At the very least, most of us think that police department funding could use an increase. This prevalent idea that the police require or deserve more pay or larger budgets could be the greatest underlying factor as to why asset forfeiture and stop-and-seizure is at an all-time high.

S&S in particular is a fast way for a local police department to get extra revenue straight into their coffers. Whatever is seized and not returned can eventually be used for approved government spending that rarely leaves the district. This means purchasing additional firearms, newer office equipment, or stacking the yearly bonus funds. For this reason, some law enforcement agents might be thinking they are doing the right thing and helping out their communities, albeit by first helping out themselves – and ignoring the fact that it is clearly a violation of personal rights. Other lawmen might see themselves as a sort of a Robin Hood character, above the law despite representing it and taking legal shortcuts despite being hired to enforce the law to the letter.

Legal Help and More Information About Asset Forfeiture

As mentioned beforehand, civil asset forfeiture that verges into the territory of legal theft carried out by the government is not a new problem. For some more insight into the issue, you should check out an article published by Armstrong Economics (click here) and another by BloombergView (click here), each posted in November 2015. We also advise you to take some time and check out our own Nebraska Interstate Drug Stop Defense Book created by our Nebraska drug stop attorneys at the Berry Law Firm. In it, you will find helpful information on how to protect your rights and your property should you get stopped by highway patrol officers in Nebraska, especially along Interstate 80 that travels clear across the state, east to west.

Of course, if you need legal help right away, such as would be the case if your property has already been suspiciously seized by law enforcement, you can always call us at 402.817.6550. With 80+ years of collective legal experience and a long history of successful case results for our clients, we have become the go-to criminal defense team in Lincoln, Omaha, and all of Nebraska.