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The Death of Due Process

Cops and Money

In a world of shrinking budgets and growing pressure to “get tough on crime,” police agencies across the country are increasingly relying on civil-asset forfeiture to fund their departments with property seized by alleged criminals. Although the Bill of Rights expressly forbids “unreasonable searches and seizures” and ensures that no citizen be deprived of “life, liberty, or property, without due process,” more and more innocent people are being deceived into forfeiting their property to the police without ever being convicted of any crime.

In 2010, Ed Boyke’s northern Michigan home was raided by the Saginaw County Sheriff and the federal Drug Enforcement Agency. Though Boyke was a legally registered caregiver and was not in violation of any law, the police seized his cash, car, plants, growing equipment, his riffles and ammo, and all of his marijuana. The next day they threatened to put a lien on his house unless he paid them $5,000 in cash. Under immense pressure Boyke gave the police the $5,000; they returned his car and a few other personal items, but not his riffles or any of his growing equipment. Though he was never charged or convicted of any crime, Boyke lost his savings and his livelihood. He only later found out that he had 20 days to contest the forfeiture and by paying $5,000 he had waived that right.

Civil-forfeiture law was first enacted in the 17th Century to enforce piracy and customs laws. Its use was limited to instances when a vessel was seized, but its owners’ whereabouts were unknown. This practice largely fell into disuse over the years and remained dormant until somewhat recently. In the 1970’s the practice was revived as a tool for taking down organized crime, but even at that time its application was extremely selective. It wasn't until 1984 when Congress passed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act that there became a real incentive for police agencies to exploit civil-asset forfeiture. The new act allowed law agencies to keep some of the proceeds from forfeitures through a program called Equitable Sharing. As states began passing their own forfeiture laws many police agencies were turning over cases directly to the federal government to circumvent more stringent state laws and share in larger chunks of the proceeds.

In the first year following the Comprehensive Crime Control Act the Justice Department seized twenty-seven million dollars worth of confiscated property. This number has continued to grow at an alarming rate. Last year the department took in nearly $4.2 billion in forfeitures. In counties across the country, law enforcement agents have developed tactics to effectively seize vast amounts of assets from suspected criminals. In many cases, they are able to extort cash from innocent people who never get convicted of any crime.

In 1992 an eccentric millionaire named Donald Scott was shot and killed at his Malibu home by a California drug task force. Police allegedly had information leading them to believe Scott was cultivating marijuana, but no plants or illegal drugs were found. It was later revealed that the agency was attempting to seize Scott’s two-hundred-acre property and assumed he would make an easy target.

Related: Michigan Cops Used Asset Forfeiture Funds to Buy Drugs, Prostitutes, and a Tanning Salon

Civil-Asset Forfeiture is increasing being used as a means of funding police departments across the country. Innocent citizens are bank rolling swat teams that are violating their constitutional rights. Efforts to curtail these behaviors have been halfhearted and grossly ineffective. Michigan medical marijuana patients and caregivers need to be aware of these practices because they are particularly vulnerable to these types of seizures.

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