by Geoff Olson
You may be familiar with the horror stories of British Columbians tied up in a legal twilight zone, after the seizure of assets for crimes they did not commit. Property and cash can be grabbed even in the absence of criminal charges or convictions connected to the alleged crimes, often involving marijuana.
B.C. bud is not the main problem here. The real threat is an invasive species known as the draconian “Civil Forfeiture Act” – the judicial equivalent of fire ants, zebra mussels, and giant hogweed.
The legal concept originated in the United States. In 1984 – an appropriate date – President Reagan signed the “Comprehensive Crime Control Act” that allowed law enforcement officials to keep a portion of the assets confiscated during drug raids and other interdictions.
As reported in The Business Insider in 2013, “Through civil forfeiture, cops can take property they believe was obtained illicitly before you’re convicted of any wrongdoing in a court of law. The people whose assets have been seized then have to go to court to try to get it back, which may cost more money than the property itself.”
In some areas, police are keeping 80 to 100 percent of the assets seized. In effect, the White House incentivized asset grabs by nimble-fingered cops.
A 2013 New Yorker article examined the case of an elderly West Philadelphia couple whose home was seized after their son allegedly sold $20 worth of marijuana from their porch. They were not charged with a crime, but they lost their home nonetheless.
The article also profiled Pentecostal church secretary Victor Ramos Guzman, whose vehicle became a police-targeted piñata en route through Virginia. While on his way to buy a parcel of land for his church, state troopers stopped him for speeding and seized all $28,500 worth of parishioners’ donations in his possession.
Civil forfeiture puts the burden of proof on the accused to show their money and/or assets aren’t the proceeds of criminal activity. If it wasn’t for Guzman’s lawyer, who convinced the court of his client’s innocence, the church would have taken a big kick to the cash register – and the troopers would have had more substantially dough for donut runs.
Since this is a story tailor-made for absurdists, The Daily Show recently interviewed Texan mother Jennifer Boatright, who said she was driving with her husband and their two children to a family event in Linden, Texas, when state troopers pulled them over, searched the car, and seized their money. As reported previously in The New Yorker, “Boatright was told she 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.”
These are not anomalous cases. They’re the result of a judicially approved, $5 billion scheme for U.S. police departments to line their coffers. At this point, the “Comprehensive Crime Control Act” is better described as “The Law of the Jungle”.
It’s not unusual for police and paramilitary units in underdeveloped countries to shake down citizens for cash. It’s win-win for both the enforcers and the local elite: the citizens become more fearful of authority, while their state-sanctioned abusers draw from a revenue stream outside a broken public sector.
MIT media critic Noam Chomsky coined the phrase, “bringing the Third World home.” With that in mind, the term “police state” doesn’t sound hyperbolic in the wake of the Gaza-like operations by the militarized detachment of Ferguson, Missouri, after local citizens protested the fatal shooting of an unarmed18 year-old.
The so-called war on drugs has merged with the so-called war on terror, sending a clear message to the huddled masses: bow before the Praetorian guard of the ruling class, empty your pockets, and shut the hell up.
We do things more discreetly in Canada, where eight provinces host civil forfeiture offices. In B.C., $41 million in property and cash has been seized since introduction of The Civil Forfeiture Act in 2005. Even if our tactics are less blitzkrieg than those of our neighbours, we’re talking about an invasive species of law with proven potential for abuse. It deserves to be weeded out from the courts.
The Vancouver Courier, Aug. 22