“”One of the many pernicious things about civil forfeiture nationwide is that the government has the power to seize your cash, and your cars, and your home, but unlike in a criminal case, you don’t have a right to appoint counsel,” says Sam Gedge, an attorney at the Institute for Justice and a lawyer for Abbott. “So if you want to defend your cash, or your car, or your homes in a civil forfeiture action, you typically just have to pay for a lawyer yourself, and that’s not surprisingly economically infeasible for lots of people who are targeted in civil forfeiture actions.”
It is not an exaggeration to say that the state or the federal government can try to take you for nearly all you’re worth in the process. People in Indiana may know that quite well. The state was the setting for one of the most high-profile forfeiture showdowns after Indiana took possession of Tyson Timbs’ new Land Rover in 2013 following his arrest for a drug crime, setting in motion an almost decade-long legal circus between Timbs and the government. State officials were eventually required to return the vehicle in 2020. But prosecutors continued to fight, arguing before the Indiana Supreme Court in 2021 that there should be no proportionality—no limit—on what the government can seize in cases like Timbs’. (The state’s highest court rejected that winning argument last summer.)
Yet civil forfeiture continues apace and is a source of police funding, with local and state departments able to keep the vast majority of the funds they take. Just last year, the Indiana Senate passed a bill to allow cops to seize assets from people suspected of committing “unlawful assembly,” a charge so vague that whether or not someone committed it is somewhat in the eye of the beholder—who, in this case, would be an arresting officer.
Civil forfeiture is also used at the federal level, and it presents many of the same problems. In May 2020, the FBI seized almost $1 million from Carl Nelson after informing him he was under investigation for allegedly committing fraud. Two years later, no criminal charges have been filed, and the government returned some of the cash. Not unlike Abbott, however, the government’s action made it a Herculean task for Nelson to push back, as he had been temporarily bankrupted. “If you can’t afford to defend yourself, let alone feed yourself, it becomes complicated,” Amy Nelson, his wife, told me in February.
As for the Hoosier state? “The ball is very much in the Indiana Legislature’s court,” says Gedge.”
“After rejiggering its speed cameras to fine any car caught traveling as little as 6 mph over the posted speed limit, the city of Chicago collected record-breaking levels of revenue last year.
Chicago’s army of 160 speed cameras issued more than 2.81 million tickets last year and collected $89 million in revenue from motorists, according to data from the Chicago Department of Finance published this week by the Illinois Policy Institute, a free market think tank. That’s more tickets than there are residents of the city, and translates to one ticket issued every 11 seconds during the entire year.
Those numbers shatter the city’s previous speed camera ticket and revenue totals, likely due to the fact that Mayor Lori Lightfoot in March 2021 ordered the cameras to start targeting slower drivers. Previously, the speed cameras had been programmed to issue tickets and $100 fines to drivers going more than 10 mph over the speed limit. Those fines remain in place, but the city’s cameras now also issue $35 fines to drivers going between 6 and 10 mph over the speed limit.
Those $35 tickets accounted for more than two-thirds of the tickets issued by Chicago’s cameras during 2021, according to the Department of Finance data.
Lightfoot and other advocates of the speed cameras argue that they make Chicago’s streets safer by discouraging high-speed driving, but the Illinois Policy Institute points out that more people died in car accidents in the city during 2021 than in 2020 or 2019.
“The safety argument seems weak in light of the various studies and increase in accident deaths, especially when the cameras are generating so much money for a city with massive pension debt and spending it can’t seem to control,” writes Patrick Andriesen, a staff writer at the institute. “Speed cameras might be more accurately called cash cams.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the poorest parts of Chicago are where most of the city’s cameras are located and, as a result, are hardest hit by the fines. Andriesen points out that nearly half the tickets issued to drivers in low-income neighborhoods were not paid on time; with late fees, those $35 tickets for barely speeding become $85 tickets.”
“The government insists that its citizens have a Second Amendment right to defend their homes, but it also insists that armed agents of the state may break down one’s door in the middle of the night with little to no warning. So if a groggy, scared citizen, jolted out of bed by the sound of men shouting and the front door coming off its hinges, exercises that right against what he or she could reasonably assume to be violent intruders, the homeowner can be held criminally liable—and that includes capital punishment. In 2006, former Reason writer Radley Balko detailed the case of Cory Maye, a Mississippi man sentenced to death for fatally shooting a police officer during a no-knock drug raid. As Reason has argued continually over the years, these sorts of raids, especially when used for narcotics search warrants and non-violent offenses, put both officers and civilians at needless risk, occasionally with tragic results.”
“When law-enforcement officials believe that someone has committed a crime, they often go to great lengths—and can be quite creative—in coming up with charges to file. Criminal codes are voluminous, and it’s common for prosecutors to pile up one charge after another as a way to keep someone potentially dangerous off the streets.
When the accused is a police officer, however, agencies typically find their hands tied. “Nothing to see here,” they say, “so let’s move along.” Their eagerness to protect their own colleagues from accountability can have deadly consequences. A recent lawsuit by the victim of a California Highway Patrol officer’s off-duty shooting brings the problem into view.
The case centers on Brad Wheat, a CHP lieutenant who operated out of the agency’s office in Amador County. On Aug. 3, 2018, Wheat took his CHP-issued service weapon and hollow-point ammunition to confront Philip “Trae” Debeaubien, the boyfriend of Wheat’s estranged wife, Mary. As he later confessed to a fellow officer, Wheat planned more than a verbal confrontation.
“I just learned this evening that Brad confided in an officer…tonight that he drove to a location where he thought his wife and her lover were last night to murder the lover and then commit suicide,” an officer explained in an email, as The Sacramento Bee reported. Fortunately, Debeaubien had left the house by the time that Wheat arrived.
Initially, Wheat’s colleagues convinced him to surrender his CHP firearm and other weapons and they reported it to superiors. Instead of treating this matter with the seriousness it deserved, or showing concern for the dangers that Debeaubien and Mary Wheat faced, CHP officials acted as if it were a case of an officer who had a rough day.
They essentially did nothing. “Faced with a confessed homicidal employee, the CHP conducted no criminal investigation of its own, notified no allied law enforcement agency or prosecutor’s office, and initiated no administrative process,” according to a pleading filed by Debeaubien in federal district court. “Nor did the CHP notify [the] plaintiff that he was the target of a murder-suicide plan that failed only because of a timely escape.””
“Two weeks later, Wheat took the same weapon and ammo and this time found his ex-wife and her boyfriend. He shot Debeaubien in the shoulder, the two struggled and Wheat—a trained CHP officer, after all—retrieved his dislodged weapon, shot to death his ex-wife, and then killed himself.
Now CHP says it has no responsibility for this tragic event and that its decisions did not endanger the plaintiff’s life. This much seems clear from court filings and depositions: CHP’s response centered on what it thought best for its own officer. Any concern about the dangers faced by those outside the agency seemed incidental, at best.”
“CHP officials expressed concern about protecting Wheat’s career, and one worried that Mary Wheat or Debeaubien might file a complaint. Even when a colleague asked Wheat to relinquish his firearm, he did so as a friend—not as CHP protocol. Again, CHP treated Brad Wheat as the focus of sympathy, not as the potential perpetrator of domestic violence.”
“”Giving a gun to a then-weaponless man who ‘had driven to a location where he thought his wife and her lover were to murder the lover and then commit suicide,’…creates an actual and particularized danger of his using the gun to attempt murder a second time,” the filing notes. That would seem obvious to anyone, except perhaps a police agency more interested in protecting itself than the public.”
“An organized group of Southern California bandits has brazenly hijacked armored cars and grabbed hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash. The heavily armed thieves reportedly have damaged trucks, hassled their victims, covered up video cameras—and even celebrated their haul. “Wowee!” and “way to go, buddy,” they allegedly cheered, after pulling a recent heist.
You’d be forgiven for assuming that this is the latest example of California’s ongoing crime wave, epitomized by “third world” scenes of pilfered freight trains and brazen smash-and-grab robberies. But it’s nothing of the sort. Actually, it’s more pernicious than the usual crime spree because a sheriff is the mastermind and his deputies are looting the armored cars.
For instance, San Bernardino County deputies stopped the same Empyreal Logistics armored-car driver twice and took a total of nearly $1.1 million in cash owned by legal marijuana dispensaries, per news reports. The government has not charged the armored-car company nor the cannabis firms with any crimes, but the sheriff keeps the cash, anyway. Critics are right to call it highway robbery.
Welcome to the dystopian world of civil-asset forfeiture, a drug-war relic that allows police—often at the behest of district attorneys—to take people’s cash, cars, and properties based on their suspicion that the property was involved in a crime. Officials never have to prove that the property’s owner was involved in a crime.
The agencies have every incentive to employ this strategy routinely given that they keep the proceeds and spend the money on vehicles, guns, and whatever. News reports found police so adept at abusing this process that they sometimes target people who own the kind of fancy SUVs and sports cars that they’d like to have available in their motor pool.
Not only does this process deprive Americans of their Fourth Amendment right to be safe against the government’s searches and seizures, but it undermines the credibility of law enforcement by turning cops into our adversaries. San Bernardino County Sheriff Shannon Dicus claims that “80 percent of marijuana at dispensaries was grown illegally.” If that’s true, then the sheriff simply needs to, you know, go to court and prove it.”
“what about the onslaught of frivolous suits that would come down against the police? That also misses the mark, particularly when considering that it is not possible to simply enter a federal courthouse and file a lawsuit because you’re mad at the cops. Before suing a government actor, a plaintiff must satisfy two conditions: that the public servant affirmatively violated someone’s constitutional rights, and that the violation of the rights is clearly established in prior case law. Without qualified immunity, a would-be litigant would still need to prove to a federal judge that his constitutional rights were infringed on. Qualified immunity is only the second part—the part that sends a victim searching for a perfect court precedent where another victim experienced a near-identical sort of misconduct.
It’s for that reason that the doctrine gives license to some disturbing behavior—the sort that should concern anyone who positions himself as a defender of responsible governance. An example: “The City Officers ought to have recognized that the alleged theft was morally wrong,” but the police “did not have clear notice that it violated the Fourth Amendment.” This is a real quote from a real decision from a real federal court—the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit—awarding qualified immunity to two government actors who we apparently cannot trust to know that stealing during a search warrant is unconstitutional unless there is some obscure court precedent saying so. I’d posit that most of the public has more faith in police to do their jobs with integrity. I certainly do.”
“Police being able to keep what they seize is one of the primary motivators for fine and forfeiture abuse, and it’s obvious to everybody except for the mayor and the police department that’s what was happening in Brookside. Without that incentive, the police would not be sniffing around every single car it comes across for a potential score.”
“despite tightening the rules for when police can keep seized property, Florida remains one of the most prolific practitioners of civil forfeiture. The Sunshine State took in more revenue through forfeitures than any other state in 2018, according to a survey by the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning public interest law firm. Local and state police can evade the new restrictions by working with the federal government, just like the Miami-Dade police did in Salgado’s case. In return for calling in the feds, they get a cut of the proceeds.
“The federal government is literally paying state and local police to circumvent state law,” says Justin Pearson, managing attorney for the Institute for Justice’s Florida office. “That’s not the way things are supposed to work.””