An eye-opening account of the uses and abuses of civil asset forfeiture by 2012 Hillman Prize-winner Sarah Stillman of the New Yorker. Stillman tells the story of one couple from Texas who lost their cash and their car after the police pulled them over and found nothing illegal in the vehicle but threatened to charge them with money laundering and seize their children if they didn’t sign over their assets:
The county’s district attorney, a fifty-seven-year-old woman with feathered Charlie’s Angels hair named Lynda K. Russell, arrived an hour later. Russell, who moonlighted locally as a country singer, told Henderson and Boatright that they had two options. They could face felony charges for “money laundering” and “child endangerment,” in which case they would go to jail and their children would be handed over to foster care. Or they could sign over their cash to the city of Tenaha, and get back on the road. “No criminal charges shall be filed,” a waiver she drafted read, “and our children shall not be turned over to CPS,” or Child Protective Services. [NY]
Unlike with criminal forfeiture, the police needn’t obtain a conviction, or even press charges, to confiscate property. Not only that, police departments get to keep whatever they seize, a glaring conflict of interest. When citizens complain, they can be threatened with criminal charges, which they signed away their stuff to avoid in the first place.
But as Stillman reports, some victims are fighting back against overwhelming odds.
[Photo credit: Ian Britton, Creative Commons.]