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Asset forfeiture
Think we live in a free country? Ever think to yourself "It could never happen here?" Here's what I think: you couldn't be more wrong.

The reason I say that is an evil cloud known as "Asset Forfeiture Laws". In direct and blatant violation of the fourth amendment, these laws allow police to simply take, and keep, any person's material possessions... without even the need for a criminal conviction. Below is an article reprinted without permission from the LP News (official monthly newsletter of the Libertarian Party). There's a well-known saying that I think applies very well to the subject, "If you aren't outraged, you aren't paying attention."

By Jarret B. Wollstein
International Society For Individual Liberty

Police stopped 49-year-old Ethel Hylton at Houston's Hobby Airport and told her she was under arrest because a drug dog had scratched at her luggage.

Agents searched her bags and strip-searched her, but they found no drugs. They did find $39,110 in cash, money she had received from an insurance settlement and her life savings; accumulated throug over 20 years of work as a hotel housekeeper and hospital janitor

Ethyl Hylton completely documented where she got the money and was never charged with a crime. But the police kept her money anyway.

Nearly four years later, she was still trying to get her money back.

Ethyl Hylton is just one of a large and growing list of Americans -- now numbering in the hundreds of thousands -- who have been victimized by civil asset forfeiture. Under new civil asset forfeiture, everything you own can be legally taken away even if you are never convicted of a crime.

Suspicion of offenses which, if proven in court, might result in a $200 fine or probation, are being used to justify seizure of tens of even hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of property. Totally innocent Americans are losing their cars, homes and businesses, based on the claims of anonymous informants that illegal transactions took place on their property. Once property is seized, it is virtually impossible to get it back.

Proprty is now being seized in every state and from every social group. Seizures include pocket money confiscated from public-housing residents in Florida; cars taken away from men suspected of soliciting prostitutes in Oregon; and homes taken away from ordinary, middle class Americans whose teenage children are accused of selling a few joints of marijuana. No person and no property is immune from seizure. You could be the next victim.

Here are some examples:

  • In Washington, DC, police stop black men on the streets in poor areas of the city and "routinely cofiscate small amounts of cash and jewelry." Most confiscated property is not even recorded by police departments. "Resident Ben Davis calls it 'robbery with a badge.'" [USA Today]

  • In Iowa, "a woman accused of shoplifting a $25 sweater had her $18,000 car -- specially equipped for her handicapped daughter -- seized as the 'get-away vehicle.'" [USA Today]

  • Detroit drug police raided a grocery store, but failed to find any drugs. After drug dogs reacted to three $1.00 bills in the cash register, the police seized $4,384 from cash registers and the store safe. According to the Pittsburgh Press, over 92% of all cash in circulation in the U.S. now shows some drug residue.

  • In Monmouth, New Jersey, Dr. David Disbrow was accused of practicing psychiatry without a license. His crime was providing counseling services from a spare bedroom in his mother's house. Counseling does not require a license in New Jersey.

    That didn't stop police fro seizing virtually everything of value from his mother's home, totalling over $60,000. The forfeiture squad confiscated furniture, carpets, paintings, and even personal photographs.

  • Kathy and Mark Schrama were arrested just before Christmas 1990 at their home in New Jersey. Kathy was charged with taking $500 worth of UPS packaged from neighbors' porches. Mark was charged with receiving stolen goods. If found guilty, they might have paid a small fine and received probation.

    The day after their arrest, their house, cars, and furniture were seized. Based upon mere accusation, $150,000 in property were confiscated, without trial or indictment. Police even took their clothing, eyeglasses, and Christmas presents for their son.

The incentive for government agencies to expand forfeiture is enormous. Agencies can easily seize property and they usually keep what they take. According to the Pittsburgh Press, 80% of seizure victims are never even charged with a crime. Law enforcement agencies often keep the best seized cars, watches, and TVs for their departments, and sell the rest.

How extensive are seizures in America today?

The Washington Post has reported that the U.S. Marshals Service alone had an inventory of over $1.4 billion in seized assets, including over 30,000 cars, boats, homes, and businesses.

The FDA

Federal and state agencies seizing property now include the FBI, the DEA, the U.S. Marshals Service, the Coast Guard, the IRS, local police, state highway patrols, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, the FDA, and the Bureau of Land Management.

Asset forfeiture is a growth industry. Seizures have increased from $27 million in 1986, to over $644 million in 1991 to over $2 billion today.

Civil asset forfeiture defines a new standard of justice in America; or more precisely, a new standard of injustice. Under civil seizure, property, not an individual is charged with an offense. Evne if you are a totally innocent owner, the government can still confiscate your "guilty" property.

Proven guilty

If government agents seize your property under civil asset forfeiture, you can forget about being innocent until proven guilty, due process of law, the right to an attorney, or even the right to a trial. All of those rights only exist if you are charged with a criminal offense; that is, with an offense which could result in your imprisonment.

If you (or your property) are accused of a civil offense (offenses which could not result in your imprisonment), the Supreme Court has rules that you have no presumption of innocence, no right to an attorney, and no protection from double jeapordy.

Seizure occurs when the government takes away your property. Forfeiture is when the legal title is permanently transferred to the state. To get seized property returned, you have to fight the full resource of your state or federal government; someetimes both!

You have to prove your property's "innocence" by documenting how you earned every cent used to pay for it. You have to prove that neither you nor any of your family members ever committed an illegal act involving the property.

To get a trial, you have to post a non-refundable "bond" of 10% of the value of your property. You have to pay attorney fees -- ranging from $5,000 to over $100,000 -- out of your own pocket. Money you pay your attorney is also subject to seizure (either before or after the trial) if the government alleges that those funds were "tainted." And you may be forced to go through trial after trial, because under civil seizures the Constitutional protection against "double jeapordy" doesn't apply.

Impoverished

Once your property is seized, expect to spend years fighting government agencies and expect to be impoverished by legal fees -- with no guarantee of winning -- while the government keeps your car, home, and bank account.

In fact, in a recent Supreme Court decision (Bennis v. Michigan), the Court said explicitly that innocent owners can be deprived of their property if it is used to facilitate a crime, even without the owner's knowledge or consent. That means you can now lose your home or business because of the action of employees, relatives, or guests, over whom you have absolutely no control.

Not only do police and prosecutors have the power to seize anything you own on the slightest pretext, they also have the incentive. The dirty little secret of the forfeiture racket is that police, prosecutors, and judges can benefit personally by stealing your property.

Brenda Grantland -- a leasing asset forfeiture defense attorney -- gives these examples of government greed in her book Your Home Is Under Arrest.

  • Suffolk County, New York. District Attorney James M. Catterton drives around in a BMW 735I that was seized from an alleged drug dealer. He spent $3,412 from the forfeiture fund for mechanical and body work, including $75 for pin-striping.

  • Warren County, New Jersey. The assistant chief prosecutor drives a confiscated yellow Corvette.

  • Little Compton, Rhode Island. The seven-member police force received $3.8 million from the federal forfeiture fun, and spent it on such things as a new 23-foot boat with trailer and new Pontiac Firebirds.

But that's just the tip of the iceberg. The head of one Los Angeles police forfeiture squad claims his group personally pockets over $60 million in seized property.

Why do our courts tolerate these outrageous legalized thefts? Because they get their cut. It's completely legal for confiscated property to be used by police, proesecutors, and judges, so long as it's for official business. In 1996, a federal district court even rules that police can personally receive 25% of the value of any confiscated home, car, or business.

National park

In Malibu, California, park police tried repeatedly to buy the home and land of 61-year-old, retired rancher Don Scott, which was next to national park land. Scott refused.

On the morning of October 2, 1992, a task force of 26 LA county sheriffs, DEA agents and other cops broke into Scott's living room unannounced. When he heard his wife, Frances, scream, he came out of his upstairs bedroom with a gun over his head. Police yelled at him to lower his gun. He did, and they shot him dead.

Police claimed to be searching for marijuana, which they never found. Ventura County DA Micahel Bradbury concluded the raid was "motivated at least in party by a desire to seize and forfeit the ranch for the government... [The] search warrant became Donald Scott's death warrant."

Outrageous

As police confiscations become more and more outrageous, opposition has been mountin. California and several other states defeated draconian forfeiture laws a few years ago, and the Supreme Court rendered several hopeful decisions. In 2000, Congress passed what authoer James Bovard described as a "largely hollow reform measure" that left he playing field "heavily tilted in the government's favor."

No wonder, then, that federal, state, and local governments are again expanding confiscation with little concern for justice. The latest targets: Doctors who resist government-controlled medicine... Businesses that employ illegal aliens (who sew most clothing and harvest many crops)... and gun owners.

Anything you own now can be seized at any time. Every week, over 5,000 innocent Americans lose their cars, bank accounts, homes or businesses, without ever being charged with a crime.

Protect yourself

What can you do to protect yourself? Read books like Brenda Grantland's Your House Is Under Arrest. Demand of your representatives why they're voting for these outrageous laws. Speak out on talk radio, through letters, newspaper editorials, and Internet forums.

Contribute to groups that are fighting police confiscation, like the Internation Society for Individual Liberty, the Libertarian Party, and Forfeiture Endangers American Rights (FEAR).

The fight against civil asset forfeiture is a battle for your freedom and property. If confiscation isn't stopped, liberty and justice will sooon be fading memories. Help stop the looting of America now, before it's too late.

  • About the authoer: Jarret B. Wollstein is a member of the Internation Society for Individual Liberty's Board of Directors and a founder of the original Society for Individual Liberty. This essay is [originally] reprinted with permission, and is available in brochure form from ISIL. Call: (707) 746-8796. Or visit: www.isil.org

  • For more information about forfeiture, contact: Forfeiture Endangers American Rights. Call: (808) FEAR-001 (332-7001). Write: P.O. Box 33985, Washington, DC 20033-3985. Or visit: www.fear.org

  • I personally don't want to know anyone who can read the above article without even a small amount of discomfort. Remember: it can happen to you. It can happen to anyone... except, of course, the politically connected, which means that there is no equal protection under the law. This is not a matter of punishment, it's a platform of corruption and extortion. Police, prosecutors, and judges are all open to moral erosion due to the basic draw of human greed. Despite what any court may say on the subject, the whole concept is undeniably unconstiutional and, therefore, illegal. Things cannot commit crimes. The idea that a "thing" can be charged with a crime, and therefore side-stepping a Constitutional protection, goes beyond the most basic foundation of reasonable and rational thought.

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