Why Cops Can (and Do) Take People's Stuff

'Civil forfeiture' fills law enforcement coffers every year

By Neal Colgrass,  Newser Staff

Posted Aug 5, 2013 9:52 AM CDT | Updated Aug 10, 2013 12:25 PM CDT

(Newser) – A drive through Tenaha, Texas, can cost you thousands of dollars—because police in this sleepy town are known for pulling over out-of-state cars and confiscating anything they want. Highway robbery? Maybe, but it's called "civil forfeiture," a legal practice that allows police to take money or property on the suspicion it was obtained illicitly. As Sarah Stillman writes in the New Yorker, the forfeitures disproportionately involve racial minorities suspected of dealing drugs. They end up losing cash, jewelry, cars, you name it, with no real hope of getting it back.

Tenaha's forfeitures may be infamous, but the practice runs nationwide. The Justice Department raked in nearly $4.2 billion in forfeitures last year, and states like Texas, Georgia, and Virginia barely restrict how law enforcement agencies can use the money. Scandals and a class-action lawsuit have ensued, but many poor Americans still face the prospect of devastating losses. "I don't even know what I'd do, being without a home in my condition," says an elderly Philadelphia man who may forfeit his house, because his son allegedly sold $60 of pot to an informant. "It's scary, just even thinking about it." Click for Stillman's full piece.

A police officer has pulled you over; civil forfeiture may ensue.
A police officer has pulled you over; civil forfeiture may ensue.   (Shutterstock)
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