Asset forfeiture laws are greatly flawed in many respects. Their fatal flaw, however, is that they give the seizing agency a financial incentive to perform as many seizures as possible.
That’s how you end up with two-stoplight towns in East Texas systematically pulling people over for minor infractions like doing 37 in a 35MPH zone, and then seizing large amounts of cash if they find them. It seems that if you’re a racial minority driver passing through Tenaha, TX, you run a good chance of getting pulled over on the faintest of pretexts, and forfeiting any “suspicious” amount of money they find on you.
Yes, drug dealers carry lots of cash by necessity. Yes, driving around with $50k in cash is imprudent. Yes, some of the injured folks may have been involved in something other than buying cars or purchasing a restaurant. Yes, the police were “following the law”. The point here is that the law is rotten. Asset forfeiture is bad, bad, bad law, poorly written and unevenly enforced, and contrary to the principles of assumed innocence until proven guilty. (Yes, I know they charge the property with a crime instead of the owner, but that’s a legal contortion to make a respectable-looking end run around the Fourth Amendment.) When a police department for a small town of 1,000 seizes three million dollars from (mostly black and Hispanic) people in the span of two years, and then uses the proceeds to buy popcorn machines, candy, and $10,000 checks to one of the officers involved in the stops for “investigative costs”, then asset forfeiture is merely highway robbery under the color of law. The fact that they threatened parents with having the TX Department of Social Services take their kids from them if they refused to sign the forfeiture waiver just makes it blackmail on top of the robbery.
Ask yourself how that whole concept would go over with the conservative crowd if the police started seizing legally-owned guns from people who legally carry them, using the same pretext: they charge the gun with a suspected crime, rather than the money in your pocket. If you want it back, the burden of proof is on you to show that the gun hasn’t been used to commit a felony. Otherwise, it belongs to the department that seized it, to be auctioned off for cash, or used by the department’s officers. Same principle, different ox gored…but the “War on Drugs” cheerleaders would scream in protest and lobby for an instant overturn of asset forfeiture laws.
The dirty little secret of asset forfeiture laws is that they were never intended to be applied consistently and even-handedly. They’re designed to give law enforcement maximum flexibility in the act of determining who looks like they’re up to no good, and what kind of cash constitutes a “suspicious” and seize-worthy amount. Ten grand in the briefcase of a clean-cut white dude in a business suit, getting pulled over in a BMW? Chance of seizure: low. Ten grand in the pocket of a black dude in a b-ball jersey, getting pulled over in an Escalade with spinning rims? Chance of seizure: hell, yeah.
In that respect, asset forfeiture laws are just like the earliest gun control laws: they’re a tool for selective enforcement, legal pretext for social control…and they’ll be used against the same people who are in support of them once the general opinion shifts to consider something else to be an even bigger threat than drugs.