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Weekend Read: How 'highway robbery' allows police to seize cash, property

In cities and towns around the country, law enforcement agencies have the power to seize people’s cash and property through a process called civil asset forfeiture.

And they need only to suspect the property owner of wrongdoing.

Law enforcement may keep some or all of what they take, depending on the state. In 13 states and the District of Columbia, agencies are not required to record or report what they’ve taken — or how much it’s worth, or why it was confiscated in the first place.

It’s a power that opens the door for abuse by law enforcement, particularly cash-strapped agencies. Fortunately, 24 states have implemented reforms and even more have debated curbing the practice.

But this week, U.S. Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced plans to expand forfeiture on a federal level.

“We plan to develop policies to increase forfeitures,” Sessions said in prepared remarks delivered Monday to the National District Attorneys Association. “No criminal should be allowed to keep the proceeds of their crime.”

But because a person does not need to have been convicted of – nor even charged with – a crime to have assets seized, it is often not criminals targeted by law enforcement. As Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in March:

These forfeiture operations frequently target the poor and other groups least able to defend their interests in forfeiture proceedings. … They are more likely to use cash than alternative forms of payment, like credit cards, which may be less susceptible to forfeiture. And they are more likely to suffer in their daily lives while they litigate for the return of a critical item of property, such as a car or a home.

In Alabama, law enforcement agencies in nine counties seized more than $2 million in cash using civil asset forfeiture procedures last year, an SPLC investigation found.

To get their assets back, the burden is on the original property owners — not law enforcement — to hire representation and to prove their innocence. As Will Tucker wrote earlier this year, for many people, this is simply beyond their means:

Many times, the individual cash amounts taken are so low that it isn’t worth hiring a lawyer or taking time off work to go to court to get the money back. And sometimes, people are intimidated and unwilling to even ask about getting their money back.

Consequently, in those nine Alabama counties, which represent more than a quarter of the state’s population, the state won 131 of 141 closed forfeiture cases.

“The process right now is unfair, undemocratic, and frankly, un-American,” Emily Early, an SPLC staff attorney, told Tucker. “Most people would likely agree that it’s simply not right for the government to take and keep someone’s money, vehicle, or other property without having to prove any wrongdoing by the owner whatsoever. Yet the law permits just that.”

In a state like Alabama, where transparency is not required, civil asset forfeiture disproportionately harms Alabama’s most vulnerable. And as Thomas wrote, “This system — where police can seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use — has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses.”

In moving to end “the policies that handcuffed our federal prosecutors,” as Sessions claimed this week in remarks announcing the expansion, he is proposing to instead “handcuff” our most vulnerable citizens.

Thanks as always for your support,

The Editors

P.S. Here are some other pieces we think are valuable this week:

SPLC's Weekend Reads are a weekly summary of the most important reporting and commentary from around the country on civil rights, economic and racial inequity, and hate and extremism. Sign up to receive Weekend Reads every Saturday morning.