Did you know that, in most states, the police can take your money and property without even charging you with a crime? Mundane actions such as having cash on hand have been cited as grounds for seizure, as a young man moving to Los Angeles to start a business discovered when his life savings were seized. He wasn’t detained, or charged with any crime — but he was left with nothing when the Drug Enforcement Agency took his cash. In any other situation, we would label this theft; the fact that the victim, Joseph Rivers, wasn’t taken in puts the lie to the idea that his behavior was some kind of threat or criminal activity.
Stories abound of abusive seizures justified under civil forfeiture. One family had its home taken because the son was caught with $40 of drugs; cities such as Philadelphia engage in hundreds of home seizures each year. In Texas, a family that drove for too long in the left lane of the highway was told by a county district attorney, Lynda K. Russell, that their children would be put in foster care, the parents would be put in jail, and their car would be seized — unless they handed over all of their cash, in which case they would be free to go. The town where that occurred, Tenaha, prides itself on this tactic, which ensures a steady flow of cash and goods from out-of-town drivers. In effect, the practice echoes the robbery of travelers by highwaymen in older days.
It’s extremely difficult, often to the point of impossible, to claim back seized property. A new Supreme Court case, however, might change that. Clarence Thomas has long been a vocal opponent of the civil-forfeiture practice. He wrote in his dissenting opinion against the Court’s refusal to hear the case Leonard v. Texas last year that:
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. . . . These forfeiture operations frequently target the poor and other groups least able to defend their interests in forfeiture proceedings. Perversely, these same groups are often the most burdened by forfeiture. 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.Justice Thomas has hoped for a civil-forfeiture case to come before the Supreme Court, so that this practice, which he views as incompatible with the due-process clause, can be analyzed on constitutional grounds. When it considers Timbs v. Indiana later this year, the Court will be able to do just that.