Saturday, October 11, 2014

My View

Random ruminations from your resident curmudgeon...

Have you heard of "civil asset forfeitures"?

Since the events of 9/11, local and state police departments have stepped up highway interdictions and other police actions designed to spot potential terrorists, drug dealers, and money launderers. The Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security has spent millions of dollars training local and state police to spot potential targets.

In fact, this mandate has created a cottage industry of private firms that train police departments on the techniques of highway interdiction . One of those firms, Desert Snow, has created a program used by many police departments called Black Asphalt Electronic Networking and Notification Systems that allows police departments across the country to share detailed information such as social security numbers, addresses, and identifying tattoos of drivers, both criminal and innocent.

And while on the surface, that effort may seem worthwhile, it has spawned an aggressive form of policing that has resulted in the seizure of billions of dollars from citizens that have not been charged with a crime.

In fact, these interdiction programs can (and many are) be used aggressively to seize the assets of innocent citizens.

Think I am exaggerating?

Deputy Ron Hain, a marketing specialist for Desert Snow, said, "all of our home towns are sitting on a tax liberating gold mine." He calls for turning our police forces into modern day "Robin Hoods".


Civil asset forfeiture is a powerful program that allows the government to take cash and property without pressing criminal charges against an individual. The individual then has to prove that the assets seized were acquired legally.

If you think this program will be used circumspectly, think again. The Washington Post examined Justice Department records and found:

  • There have been 61,998 asset seizures since 9/11 and the total taken is over $2.5 billion. More than 50% of the seizures were for less than $8,800.

  • Because of the cost of challenging these seizures in court, only 10,291 were challenged in court. When they were, the government returned 42% of the assets seized. The process on average took over a year to resolve, and in each case, the owners of the assets were required to sign an agreement that they would not sue the police department.

  • Although there is a federal ban on using seized assets to fund annual operating budgets, 298 police departments and 210 special task forces use these proceeds to support their annual operations, according to Justice Department statistics.

Now there is no doubt that we live in much more dangerous times than we did before 9/11; and there is without question that our police officers have a dangerous and tough job. I am thankful that we have dedicated men and women that will put their life on the line for us.

But the tension between security and civil liberty is probably higher now than it has been in our lifetime. The desire to be secure does not mean we as free citizens have to give up our liberties. Yet the creep of federal intrusion in all areas of our lives is growing, and the civil asset forfeiture program is one of the more egregious examples of the loss of our freedoms.

As citizens, we cannot sit idly by and allow these kinds of actions to continue. We must push back and demand accountability from law enforcement and from our elected leaders to preserve our freedom and our liberty.

"Power must always be kept in check; power exercised in secret, especially under the cloak of national security, is doubly dangerous."

                                                                   William Proxmire

And that, my friends, is my view.

Know your rights: During traffic stops on the nation’s highways, the U.S. Constitution’s Fourth Amendment protects motorists “against unreasonable searches and seizures.” The law also gives police the power to investigate and act on their suspicions.
1. Police have a long-established authority to stop motorists for traffic infractions. They can use traffic violations as a pretext for a deeper inquiry as long as the stop is based on an identifiable infraction.
2. An officer may detain a driver only as long as it takes to deal with the reason for the stop. After that, police have the authority to request further conversation. A motorist has the right to decline and ask whether the stop is concluded. If so, the motorist can leave.
3. The officer also has the authority to briefly detain and question a person as long as the officer has a reasonable suspicion that the person is involved in criminal activity. Reasonable suspicion is based on specific and articulable facts but falls short of the legal standard for making an arrest.
4. A traffic infraction or reasonable suspicion alone do not give police authority to search a vehicle or a closed container, such as luggage. Police may ask for permission to search; drivers may decline. Police do not have to tell drivers that they have a right to refuse.
5. An officer may expand a roadside investigation if the driver’s responses and other circumstances justify a belief that it is more likely than not that criminal activity is occurring. Under this standard, known as probable cause, an officer can make an arrest or search a vehicle without permission. An alert by a drug-sniffing dog can provide probable cause, as can the smell of marijuana.
6. Police can seize cash that they find if they have probable cause to suspect that it is related to criminal activity. The seizure happens through a civil action known as asset forfeiture. Police do not need to charge a person with a crime. The burden of proof is then on the driver to show that the cash is not related to a crime by a legal standard known as preponderance of the evidence.
Sources: Jon Norris, criminal defense attorney; David A. Harris, University of Pittsburgh law professor; Scott Bullock, civil liberties lawyer, Institute for Justice; Department of Homeland Security.

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