Thursday, February 11, 2016

Who's More Likely To Steal Your Stuff -- Police or Criminals? The Answer Will Shock You!

If you're not familiar with civil asset forfeiture, you really should be. Here, let Jon Oliver explain it to you:

If you're too lazy to watch the video, here's the really short version of asset forfeiture: it's terrifying. As opposed to criminal forfeiture, which is the result of a criminal conviction, civil forfeiture requires no trial. Hell, it doesn't really even require evidence. Hell, you don't even need to be aware that your property is suspected of being used in a crime for it to be taken from you. And then the entire burden of evidence is on you to get your stuff back.

Because, in one of the many fun legal quirks of our criminal justice system, in civil asset forfeiture cases, it's the physical object considered guilty, not a person. This is why these types of cases feature ridiculous names like "The United States Government v. 1,960 Bags of Coffee" or "The United States Government v. 667 Bottles of Wine" (and yes, these are both actual case titles). Since it's the property that's considered guilty, it literally does not matter at all if the person who owns it is factually innocent (in most cases, the person whose property was seized is never even charged with a crime).

Originally this began as a way to break up criminal organizations. The theory was that beyond just putting people in prison, we would take all their criminal goods and supplies as well so someone else couldn't just pick up where they left off. And it was largely used that way, until 1986, when legislation was passed allowing police to keep up to 100% of the seized cash and items, depending on various minutiae and state laws. Prior to this legislation, the vast majority of seized assets were simply turned over to the general fund.

Do you care to take a guess as to what happened when we switched from police having to turn all of that sweet loot over to someone else and instead let them keep it themselves?

You should really only need one guess, as the results are not terribly surprising: in 1985, there was a little over $27 million in assets seized nationwide. By the turn of the century, that number was well over 1 billion dollars a year. Funny, but it turns out that if you tell the police they are allowed to take whatever they want in a system that provides basically no oversight and in which anyone whose stuff they take has to go through an insane amount of legal hurdles for the chance of ever getting it back...well, it turns out the police will just go ahead and take whatever they want.

And while the very practice itself is horrifying to anyone who believes in democracy, or individual rights, or you know, just not having their shit taken by random assholes, 2014 marked a milestone in the rampant abuse of asset forfeiture laws:

In 2014, federal law enforcement alone took more from stuff from people than burglars.

(It should be noted that only counts federal law enforcement, neglecting the insane amount stolen er "seized" by state and local law enforcement.)

I don't really think I can come up with anything appropriately snarky enough to make a joke funnier than the reality of the fact that you're more likely to get robbed by a police officer than by a burglar. Though I will say that as someone who occasionally brings up the idea of police abolition, the most common argument against such a proposal is that crime would run rampant. I guess now I can note that at least in the case of property theft, police abolition would actually greatly reduce the amount of crime in our fair nation...

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