In the United States, law enforcement agencies have the power to seize the assets of those suspected of criminal activity. On its face, this seems somewhat reasonable. However, the threshold for suspicion of criminal involvement is perilously low and allows law enforcement agencies to abuse the power afforded through civil forfeiture. Many innocent citizens have had their property seized as a result, and the following instances of civil forfeiture abuse are particularly egregious.
10 DEA Agents Seize $16,000 From Amtrak Traveler
After saving up enough money to pursue a career in the music industry, Joseph Rivers, 22, bought a one-way train ticket to Los Angeles. For DEA agents, that act alone—along with the fact that he was traveling with such a large amount of cash—was enough to suspect that Rivers was involved in drug trafficking or some other “narcotic activity.” Battlefield America: T... Best Price: $10.95 Buy New $18.80 (as of 10:15 EST - Details)
Other passengers traveling on the Amtrak train noted that Rivers, a young African-American man, was the only passenger to be singled out by the DEA. His attorney, Michael Pancer, suggested Rivers’s race may have played a role, as he was the only black passenger on his section of the train.
During the search and subsequent seizure of his cash, Rivers has said that he was completely cooperative and even allowed the DEA agents to contact his mother to corroborate his story. Rivers pleaded with agents that he would be penniless upon his arrival in California with no means of survival and no way of returning home. According to Rivers, “[The DEA agents] informed me that it was my responsibility to figure out how I was going to do that.”
Rivers was not charged with any crime, and there is no indication that he ever will be, but the DEA was still able to legally seize all of the $16,000 he carried. The DEA’s explanation for the seizure was particularly troubling: “We don’t have to prove that the person is guilty. It’s that the money is presumed to be guilty.”
How America Was Lost: ... Best Price: $5.35 Buy New $2.99 (as of 10:30 EST - Details) 9 Philadelphia Couple’s Home Seized After Son Arrested For Marijuana
In 2012, Leon and Mary Adams had their property seized because their son, Leon Jr., had allegedly been selling marijuana from their front porch without their knowledge. Though Leon Jr. was indeed charged with a crime, he was alleged to have sold very small quantities—a “few $20 marijuana deals”—and the couple had nothing to do with the criminal activity. Leon Jr. had not yet been convicted of the criminal activity when the police asserted that they would be seizing the property that had been the home of Leon and Mary Adams since 1966.
According to the Philadelphia Police Department, Leon Jr. had sold $20 worth of marijuana to a police informant on multiple occasions. After the first sale, the informant went to the porch of the Adams home on two more occasions to again buy $20 worth of marijuana. With evidence in the form of marked bills and the ostensible testimony of the informant, Philadelphia Police used a SWAT team in riot gear to break down the door of the home and arrest Leon Jr. A month later, Leon and Mary Adams were informed that in addition to their son being in jail while awaiting trial, their home would also be seized under civil forfeiture laws.
Suicide Pact: The Radi... Best Price: $0.25 Buy New $2.84 (as of 04:15 EST - Details) The profits from the sale of the seized home would be split between the police and the district attorney’s office after it was sold at auction. The only reason police didn’t evict Leon and Mary Adams before they could challenge the civil forfeiture claim was that the elder Leon Adams was enduring a host of health problems and was undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer.
The forfeiture case is still pending. During an early court appearance, the assistant district attorney assigned to the Adams case brought the wrong folder to court, causing a further delay in the process.
8 Driver Loses $3,500 For ‘Looking Like A Drug Dealer’
In a case highlighted in an NAACP letter to Congress, an African-American man was pulled over traveling from Virginia to Delaware, allegedly for having a taillight out. The taillight had actually been functioning properly, but this ploy allowed the officer to size up the driver for a potential search and seizure through the use of civil asset forfeiture. The driver, according to the officer, “looked like a drug dealer,” which was apparently reason enough for the officer to enlist a drug-sniffing dog to search the man’s car.
After the search did not turn up any drugs or any other evidence of illegal activity, the officer asked if the driver was carrying any guns, drugs, or money. Though the driver had no firearms and no drugs, he did state that he had $3,500 in cash. The officer promptly seized the driver’s cash. Despite not finding any evidence that could support an arrest, they said that the money could only be the profits of drug dealing and was thus subject to legal seizure under civil forfeiture laws. The driver was never charged with any crime.
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