In 2012, my wife and I decided to take a road trip through this great land of ours to visit my wife’s sister. Her sister was wanted to buy a house, so my wife wanted to help out. Rather than spend the money on a wire, she took 8,000 dollars out of the bank with the intention of giving it directly to her sister when we arrived.
Soon after pulling onto the highway, a truck in front of us kicked up a rock, putting a tiny crack in the wind shield. I grit my teeth, but there was nothing to do about it for the time being, so we continued on the trip.
Somewhere along the Arizona- New Mexico border, a police officer somehow noticed that crack in the windshield and pulled us over. I was polite and cooperative, and the officer was pleasant. He said that we should fix the windshield as soon as possible, but that he wouldn’t write us up this time. He also said there was a lot of drug traffic coming through the area, and though we looked like nice enough people, he asked if he could search our car. I agreed since it’s always been my policy to cooperate with the police.
He leaned into the car and within two minutes came back out with the envelope of money my wife had placed for safe-keeping below the front passenger seat. He asked what it was for, and my wife told him about about her sister buying the house and how she meant to present it as a gift.
The officer took his hat off and scratched his head. Then he said “I think this is too much money for people to just be carrying around, unless it’s for some other reason. This money, it probably comes from drugs sales, and I’m going to need confiscate it.”
This is when things got really weird. The officer brought out a piece of paper that he wanted us to sign saying that we were relinquishing rights to the money. If we did sign, we would not be arrested. If we didn’t sign, we would still lose the money, our car too, and we would be arrested.
Reluctantly, and with my wife glowering at me, I signed.
The above is not a true story in that this event never happened to me. It could have, though, and has happened to thousands of people all over the country.
This week, President Trump met at a round table with sheriffs from across the country to discuss law enforcement. One of the topics for discussion was civil forfeiture – the practiced being described above. Trump, true to form, supported this practice without ever really demonstrating that he understood it.
In summary, civil forfeiture is the practice of police confiscating property due to ‘probable cause,’ a term which can mean anything the police want it to. The property’s owner does not have to be convicted, charged, or even arrested. Once seized, the procedures for getting the property back are drawn out and expense – made that way to dissuade people from trying.
And what happens to the money? At least some of it goes to the very police department the officer works for. This creates what some legal analysts term a moral hazard or perverse incentive. It turns the police from being the upright protectors of the people, to being the wolves preying on the people.
And if, as I might hear you say, that most police are true blue, this is a systemic, not an individual evil. The departments will rate officers on how well they bring in the bucks – just look at the prevalence of ticket quotas, also supposedly not in use.
The police need to be impartial administers of the law. And this is increasingly important now with trust in the government eroding. When police act like citizens are prey, the citizens will respond by not trusting the police, not calling the police, and resisting when the police are trying to deal with situations. The police need the trust and admiration of the people they protecting to do their job effectively.
Civil forfeiture is a corrosive abuse of official power.
We the people have a responsibility to maintain our liberty even in the face of official authority. This doesn’t mean directly opposing, but it does mean doing things to keep ourselves, our privacy, and our property safe. A free internet, our right to use encryption, our right to a non-government-non-bank money are key to this ability.