Did you know that the police can confiscate items such as cash and property from people who have never been convicted of a crime?
It’s true, and it's all because of a little-known police tactic called civil forfeiture.
A product of the so-called “war on drugs,” civil forfeiture was part of the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 passed by Congress 29 years ago. The bill gives law enforcement officials a portion of the assets seized during drug raids and similar investigations.
Unfortunately, according to certain reports, some police departments have been going overboard with the tactic.
Civil forfeiture allows police to seize suspected illicit goods from people who have yet to be convicted in court. This means that perfectly innocent people could lose their assets and property merely because they are suspected of committing a crime.
And if less-than-ethical police officers are involved, well, it could be a nightmare.
Take the story of West Philadelphia couple Mary and Leon Adams. Their home was seized after their son allegedly sold $20 worth of marijuana on their porch, according to The New Yorker.
They were given an eviction notice but were allowed to stay in their home during the forfeiture proceedings due to Leon Adams’ failing health. They're currently still fighting to keep their home -- and have yet to be charged with a crime.
On his way to purchase a new parcel of land for the Pentecostal church he worked for, Victor Ramos Guzman and his brother-in-law were pulled over in Virginia for speeding. Guzman was also carrying roughly $28,500 worth of parishioners' donations for the land purchase.
The state trooper took every cent, according to The New Yorker.
Luckily, Guzman was able to get the money back – but only because he had the help of David Smith, a lawyer who used to work with the Justice Department's forfeiture office during the Reagan administration.
"We could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the money was church money from parishioners’ donations,” Smith told The New Yorker. “But these were people who didn’t have the means to fight back. They weren’t well-to-do. They didn’t know any senators or congressmen, they weren’t citizens. They had no voice.”
Unfortunately, not everyone who has to deal with the wrongful invoking of civil forfeiture has a Smith in their corner.
Getting your money and property back means going to court. As the Adams' found out, this can be an expensive and lengthy ordeal. Indeed, as noted by Business Insider, civil forfeiture has been a major blow to poor minorities who lack the necessary fund to fight back.
But not everyone is taking it lying down. In fact, a group in Tenaha, Texas — where civil forfeiture is apparently out of control – has pulled together its resources to file a class-action lawsuit against civil forfeiture.
Tenaha has even agreed to reform its civil forfeiture procedures to ensure innocent people aren’t caught up in the practice, Business Insider noted.
The New Yorker's Sarah Stillman has much more on this little-known but powerful police tactic here.
Follow Becket Adams (@BecketAdams) on Twitter
Featured image Getty Images.