FACT WITHIN THE FICTION
How Research Changed the Way I View the World: Civil Asset Forfeiture and Sticky Hands
Munroe traverses a lot of ground, spends a lot of time working in despot-run countries where those in power have all the power and citizens are often just as afraid of the police as they are of the criminals. In those countries police and criminals are often one and the same. Munroe's thoughts from THE VESSEL could have been expressed about nearly any corrupt nation: Venezuela. Bolivia. Congo. Nigeria. The list is long, very long.
But let’s take away the fictional aspect for just a moment. Let’s put you behind the wheel and try this on for size: You’re driving just a bit over the speed limit and you don’t see the police car until after you've passed it. You check the rearview mirror. The cop car has pulled on to the road. You swear to yourself. He follows. He catches up. He flips his lights and you slow down and pull over.
The officer runs through the routine of checking your license and your vehicle paperwork, and then he asks if you’re carrying any cash. If you lie and you’re caught lying, things are going to get bad, bad, bad, so you tell the truth: You’re on your way to purchase your cousin’s car and you have the money in the glove compartment. The officer accuses you of criminal activity, says that only drug dealers carry that kind of cash. You bolster your side with facts and show him a printout of the email where you and your cousin had agreed on the car’s selling price.
The officer doesn't charge you with any crime and doesn't arrest you. You’re relieved when he tells you he’s not even going to write you a ticket for speeding. But then he confiscates your cash. You tell him he can’t just take your money, not without probable cause—that’s what thieves do—highway robbers. He says you’re free to go and you’d best be on your way before he changes his mind and finds a reason to pull out the handcuffs. You’re deflated. You’d scrimped for six months to save for that car. The money is gone and there’s nothing you can do about it but carrying cash was the risk you took, the risk of doing business in a corrupt nation where those in power can do what they want no matter what the law says. Except this didn't happen in a developing country, it happened to you, right here in the United States, and the officer didn't break the law.
Welcome to the land of the free where, under civil asset forfeiture laws, law enforcement can legally take away your property—cash, cars, televisions, phones, houses, hotels, business enterprises, you name it—under the mere suspicion that your property might have been used in the commission of a crime. Forget about innocent until proven guilty. They don’t have to prove anything, don’t have to charge you for a crime, they only have to say they suspect you've committed one and poof, money gone.
Most people would say no, never. It’s a fundamental American belief—and a right written into our constitution—that we cannot be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. It defies our sense of justice and reason, and our understanding of law, that a law-abiding family can have their home taken away by the local sheriff and auctioned off to the highest bidder, all because their son was caught selling drugs in their front yard.
It defies our sense of justice and reason, and our understanding of law, that a law-abiding citizen can have thousands of dollars, or his business, or anything else he owns, confiscated by the mere suspicion of city police, who are then entitled to keep the cash, or keep the property, for their own departmental shopping wish list.
We don’t want to believe that could happen here. We don’t want to believe it could happen to us. These are the types of scenarios that make for good thrillers where the corrupt cops eventually get outted by the good cops and in the end, the good guys win. Surely this type of asset seizure isn't part of everyday life—and even if it is, surely not to the extent that it’s common. Surely the people who have their stuff taken had done something wrong because that’s the way it works in this country, right? Truth, justice and the American way.... right?
How safe would you feel if you knew that the assets for which you’ve worked your entire life could be taken from you at any time, simply because someone in a uniform wanted them?
This is not fiction.
Civil asset forfeiture has been declared constitutional by the US Supreme Court since as far back as the 1800s. Originally these laws were utilized as a legal means to confiscate the tools used by criminal enterprises when bringing the necessary “beyond reasonable doubt” was too complicated. In the 1900's civil asset forfeiture became the means to seize boats and vehicles used to transport drug shipments, a necessary tool to help take down the "kingpins" and put them out of business.
But over the last decade these types seizures have been applied more and more often to everyday salt of the earth people like you and me—many of whom who've committed no crime at all.
The most baffling aspect of these laws is the mercenary way they incentivize those we trust to protect us to, instead, find arbitrary reasons to take our stuff away: the department that seizes the property is the department that gets to keep most (sometimes all) of the money, which can then be used to buy toys and gadgets and goodies that the public coffers (your tax dollars) won’t pay for.
The frequency of abuse and the lack of recourse against civil asset forfeiture is a serious topic. A frustrating topic. Maddening even. One of those issues that you have to laugh about, else you’d cry. It’s better that we laugh, so there’s this:
Given that civil asset forfeiture laws have been ruled constitutional, and given the arbitrariness of their nature in that, even doing everything right and abiding by every law isn’t enough to protect your property, how do you keep sticky hands from thieving for "pennies from heaven"?
Well, like Vanessa Michael Munroe, you could move all your assets offshore to countries with a stronger respect for individual property rights. Or you could get buddy-buddy with your local sheriff and chief of police and hope nepotism saves your butt on a rainy day. Realistically, the one effective thing you can do is raise a stink to every one of your political representatives and work to get your state laws changed.
Civil asset forfeiture won't be going away—when used correctly, these laws do serve a useful purpose—and there are powerful voices with strong interests in keeping the laws as they are. But your voice can help push for reforms to limit the scope and conditions under which property can be seized; to require the seizing authority to carry a burden of proof; to provide for an impartial due process for those who've had their assets seized; to limit and strictly control how money from seized assets can be spent; to limit the amount of money seizing authorities are able to keep for their own purposes; and to limit the “profit sharing” arrangement with the Federal government because it’s through doing work with the Feds (which allows local agencies to keep a huge percentage of the haul) that most local agencies sidestep laws that are already on the state books.
And the biggest of all: how about we find a way to take the mercenary aspect out of asset forfeiture by directing the proceeds from seized property to budget items that always seems to suffer from lack of funding: mental health services, hospital trauma care, early childhood education programs, you name it and take your pick—give the money to anyone, really, other than the guys who took it away in the first place.
Laws like these would go a long, long way toward separating us from the despot, crime- and corruption-filled governments we so often decry.
For a less-humorous, but great recap of asset forfeiture and the arguments being debated in by lawmakers, this post from Grits for Breakfast (ranked one of the top 3 most influential independent law blogs in the North America) is fantastic.
Taylor Stevens is an award-winning and New York Times bestselling novelist who—by odds and expectations—should never have become either successful or published. Like many aspiring authors Stevens had no credentials or platform, and no direct route into the publishing world. But, unlike most, she was also limited by a life of cultural isolation and a sixth-grade education.
Born into an apocalyptic cult and raised in communes across the globe, Stevens grew up as a child laborer, cooking and cleaning for up to a hundred at a time, caring for younger commune children, or out on the streets begging on behalf of commune leaders. Books, movies, music, and pop-culture from the outside world were strictly forbidden, and she finally gained unlimited access to fiction after returning to the United States in her early thirties. Her books have since been published in over twenty languages, with The Informationist optioned for film by James Cameron’s production company, Lightstorm Entertainment.