Civil Forfeiture – Nothing Civil About It

legal robberyThis morning I was minding my own business, a rare event for me, and reading the August 12, 2013 edition of the New Yorker magazine. I delved into an article called Taken, by Sarah Stillman. Her quote at the beginning of the article was “Under civil forfeiture, Americans who haven’t been charged with wrongdoing can be stripped of the cash, cars, and even homes. Is this all we’re losing?”

This quote failed to include, but she detailed later in the article, an even more frightening occurrence under civil forfeiture. Law enforcement agencies can not only take every scrap of your worldly possessions without even charging you with a crime, but your children as well. As a matter of fact children are held hostage with the threat of placing children in foster care to bully the parents to relinquish their possessions without a fight. If they refuse, they are charged with child endangerment and their children are taken, even infants at the breast.

In my opinion civil forfeiture is state funded pillage and plunder. What happened to being innocent until proven guilty? A pretty neat trick – claim to suspect someone of a crime and then confiscate their money and property so that they have no means to defend themselves. Whatever is confiscated is not returned even if the suspected party is found not guilty or never even formally charged with a crime in the first place. This is robbery pure and simple. The fact that this is perfectly “legal” in America is profoundly disturbing.

As I am writing this my hands are shaking and then the memories came flooding back. This has happened to me not once but 3 times in my life. It’s no wonder that I am supremely pissed. I’ve never heard the term civil forfeiture until today, but I know now that is what it was. And I was never formally charged let alone convicted of any crime whatsoever in my entire life. The worst thing I’ve ever been fined for is a parking ticket.

Anyone who has ever been to New Orleans knows that it is almost impossible to emerge unscathed without at least one ticket. It’s a no win game. The meter maids see an out of state license plate and the game is on. My tires are always covered with neon orange chalk marks when I leave New Orleans. They mark my car and watch it, waiting for the inevitable slip up. One of my tickets was for a tire that was not less than eighteen inches from the curb. That’s tricky because many of the old curbs have a metal edge on them and you risk blowing out a tire and damaging the wheel hub in an effort to get close but not too close to the curb.

The first “forfeiture” I experienced happened when I was 18 years old. A guy I was dating less than 6 weeks turned out to be a thief. The police went to my apartment looking for him and in the process took everything I owned, clothing, furniture, the contents of my fridge, even my toothbrush. I was left with nothing but the clothes on my back. I never got any of it back. I maintained that I had no idea what he was up to and the police even agreed with me saying that they had been watching him. I think taking everything I owned as punishment was taking the saying “ignorance is no excuse” a bit far.

The second time this happened was when I let my 2 little brothers borrow my car to go duck hunting and fishing. This happens in Louisiana, the state motto is “Sportsman’s Paradise” for crying out loud. They got pulled over in a small town for some stupid reason I don’t even remember. Turns out these 2 teenaged boys had a little weed for personal use on them. Oh no, unleash the hounds from hell. (sarcasm mine) The police searched the trunk to find hunting rifles and fishing gear. It was duck season after all. Probably every car and truck in the area contained hunting paraphernalia. My brothers had in their possession the appropriate game licenses to prove that their intention was in fact to hunt and fish.

My brothers were not charged with anything. Instead they impounded the car and its entire contents. MY CAR! I wasn’t even there. We had to go pick them up from some little Podunk town in mid Louisiana. My car and all the possessions there in were not returned to me…ever. I was left with no transportation to get to work because I let my brothers use my car to go hunting and fishing. My brother commented later that the cop who stopped them was wearing my brand new Ray ban sunglasses left in the visor when he let them go. For some reason that ticked me off more than them taking my car.

In the third and worse case they took my child and it took 6 weeks and thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees to get her back. My crime you may ask? My mother had failed to inform the police that her sons were dabbling in the evils of marijuana. I balked at testifying in court to the effect that she was a terrible and abusive mother. This made me an “accessory” in my Mother’s “child abuse” and they took custody of my child and sent her to a state run foster home. This was not meant to be a temporary placement. They fully intended to take her away from me, but I found the means to fight back and I did, and I won. I was in court that day and heard with unbelieving ears the judge call my mother a “disgusting bitch” and “the worse mother she had ever encountered.” This is an exact quote, not a paraphrase.

So anyway, I think we as a country need to take a long hard look at this civil forfeiture process. I’m extremely pleased that a large national magazine like the New Yorker is outing this heinous practice. Will it help? I don’t know. But, something definitely needs to be done about it. Don’t think it couldn’t happen to you because it could in a heartbeat. Let a troubled relative stay with you and they continue to get in trouble? You could find yourself out on the street and penniless because of your act of charity.

12 responses

  1. Doesn’t this violate the 4th Amendment? You know, that one about search and seizure? I had no idea this kind of crap actually went on. I thought you actually had to be a criminal for something like this to happen.

  2. This has happened to my brother. I know exactly what you are talking about and it is WRONG! It destroys lives. It has happened to my brother twice and it destroyed his life and the lives of the two children of whom he had custody. Things have never been the same. These children are now at-risk children where they would have been safe with my brother had he retained custody of them. It makes me sick to think about what could have been and what a mess things have been made with this seizure. It cost my brother thousands of dollars to fight this. He lost and the children lost more. I’m glad your situation turned out better in the end.

    1. WRONG is the exact word for it. It is government gone way wrong. A big part of the problem is that frequently the perpetrators of these illegal seizures are often the direct recipient of the ill gotten gains. Furthermore they are under no directive to account to for what they do with money and property taken. They never seem to want the children however. They just dump them into the foster care system where they are almost guaranteed to reach adulthood as disturbed persons.

  3. Actually the same can happen in Canada… and many other countries are far WORSE than the USA. I liked this post though, it does show the “gray” areas our government uses to allow people to be manipulated. I have seen the same myself.

    1. This whole things really outrages me. Illegal search and seizure by the British was one of the reasons Americans engaged in the Revolutionary war…and now we’re doing it to ourselves. ??

    1. Indeed, the article was quite a long one and it made my hair stand on end.

  4. I think I’m glad I live in Canada…

    1. Yes but the winters there… 🙂

      1. And that is why we spent part of last winter in Arizona!

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