Here's one way to avoid the lengthy, often-futile process of recovering your assets after they've been seized by the government via civil asset forfeiture. The Charleston Gazette-Mail reports law enforcement suddenly decided to return $10,000 to the couple it seized it from, but only after being asked to comment on the forfeiture. (h/t C.J. Ciaramella)
After the Gazette-Mail reached out to the state police Monday with inquiries about the seizure, and after weeks of [Tonya] Smith calling police, the Jefferson County prosecuting attorney and local politicians, Smith said an officer returned her and [Dimitrios] Patlias’ possessions in full Thursday evening.
The couple was traveling from New Jersey to a casino in West Virginia. A West Virginia state trooper rolled the dice on the out-of-state plates and pulled over their car for "failure to drive within [their] lane." From there, the stop became exploratory with the trooper accusing them of smuggling drugs, smuggling cigarettes, or -- following a search of the vehicle -- gift card fraud.
Smith and Patlias had $10,000 in cash between both of them. In addition, they had a number of gift cards, loyalty cards, and cash cards -- all legally obtained -- which the trooper used to shore up the last accusation on the list. Despite being possible fraudsters/smugglers, the trooper handed the pair a warning for the lane violation and let them go on their way. So, they returned to New Jersey with $2 in their pockets.
This set the forfeiture in motion. The couple had 30 days to state a claim to their belongings, otherwise the proceeds would be split between the state police and the prosecutor. The trooper had every incentive to seize everything in the car (which included a cellphone): 90% of proceeds go to the agency that performed the seizure.
As the article points out, this could have been deterred, if not avoided completely. But, unfortunately, a bill requiring convictions for forfeitures died in the state legislature. Despite the incentive-skewing, asset forfeiture still has its advocates who make horrible arguments like this on its behalf:
Those in support of the practice say the ability of law enforcement officers to use forfeiture laws can hamstring drug dealing networks by leaning on their finances, which can be more effective than criminal charges. They also point out that the proceeds can help police buy much-needed equipment.
First, most forfeitures performed in the US involve low dollar amounts, often taken from someone never charged with drug-related crimes. Second, what kind of idiot justifies the seizure of property from people who've never been convicted of a crime by stating that it helps the government buy new stuff for itself? The answer is: only the sort of idiot who can't see how it incentivizes exactly the sort of thing that happened here: a state trooper pulling over an out-of-state driver for a roadside fishing expedition. Nothing about the process deters police officers from shaking down anyone and everyone for valuables so long as they can imagine a criminal origin for the property of citizens.
This worked out well for this couple, who now won't have to spend more than what was seized to get their property returned. Fighting forfeiture is expensive and the outcome is far from guaranteed, even if there's no evidence the seized property was involved in or the byproduct of criminal activity. Officers looking at a 90% payout down the road know this. That's why asset forfeiture -- minus criminal charges -- is the abusive debacle it is today. Nothing about it rewards honest law enforcement work.
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