Shocking Videos Show that Behind Closed Doors, Civil Forfeiture Turns Cops into Robbers

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Law Enforcement Official Says: “We could be czars. We could own the city.”

On September 10th, 2014, the city of Santa Fe, N.M. hosted a continuing legal education (CLE) seminar to discuss the ethics, process, and effectiveness of using a controversial practice known as civil forfeiture to take citizens’ property—with this seminar focusing on seizing automobiles—without charging or convicting the property owners of a crime. The conference was recorded and the statements made by a number of the state’s law enforcement officials demonstrate a clear abuse of power. In New Jersey, Garden State CLE hosted a similar seminar featuring Mercer County Attorney Sean McMurtry. The video was available on their website.

Items of Note

  • Las Cruces, N.M. City Attorney Harry S. “Pete” Connelly called his legal documents a “masterpiece of deception.”
  • An Albuquerque official says the city doesn’t want to disclose information about civil forfeiture, because it might become a “bullet-point for people that are trying to fight the program.”
  • McMurtry said that “the bulk of the vehicles that we take in are registered to someone other than the defendant.” In other words, innocent people are losing their cars because someone else may have committed a crime with their property.

Watch the videos and read the highlights here: http://www.buzzfeed.com/nicks29/aif-in-doubtatake-ita-behind-closed-doors–4y3w

“Americans ought to be outraged to know that behind closed doors, the people they’ve entrusted to uphold the law have little respect for constitutional rights,” said Scott Bullock a senior attorney in charge of the Institute for Justice’s initiative to end civil forfeiture. “The officials’ utter disdain for the sanctity of private property shown in these videos makes it clear that the profit incentive inherent in civil forfeiture perverts law enforcement decision-making and deprives citizens of their right to due process.”

While law enforcement officials justify civil forfeiture as a crime fighting tactic, critics point out that it not only deprives citizens of their personal property rights, but also entices law enforcement officials to police for profit and pursue valuable property rather than seek the neutral administration of justice—legitimate criminal justice goals.

As the Institute for Justice’s new report, “Bad Apples or Bad Laws?” makes clear, policing for profit is not just an issue of a few bad cops; rather, the system itself is rigged. The report details a cutting-edge experiment to determine whether the incentives in civil forfeiture laws change behavior, and if so, how. The results show that they do—and not in a good way: Civil forfeiture’s profit motive creates a strong temptation for law enforcement to seize property to pad their own budgets.

That much is clear from the videos uncovered by the Institute for Justice. For instance, Las Cruces City Attorney Harry S. “Pete” Connelly said that “We always try to get, every once in a while, maybe a good car.” At other moments, a number of attendees discuss methods of structuring the program to ensure that their cities’ programs break even or even turn a profit. Connelly advises: “If you make money on motor vehicle seizures, it’s ok, don’t feel bad.”

In New Jersey, McMurtry explains that flatscreen TVs are “very popular with the police departments…every flat screen, so far, that we’ve taken has been put to use in a police headquarters or in a training room.” But when it comes to cell phones—which are much more likely to be involved in the commission of a crime—McMurtry explains: “We really don’t file for forfeiture of cell phones. There are so many of them out there. Everybody’s got one. We really don’t have a need for it but we could if we wanted.”

“The videos are smoking gun evidence demonstrating that law enforcement officials plot to use civil forfeiture to take property from owners who did nothing wrong,” continued Bullock. “Government at all levels should either abolish civil forfeiture and use criminal forfeiture where they must prove an owner guilty of a crime before property can be taken, or, at the very least, remove the perverse profit incentive at its core, which allows police and prosecutors to funnel forfeiture money into their departments’ bank accounts. The money should go to the general treasury rather than to the very departments engaged in the forfeitures.”

Civil forfeiture is a controversial legal process that allows law enforcement officials to take citizens’ property under the legal fiction that the property itself aided in the commission of a crime. But unlike criminal cases, where a defendant is innocent until proven guilty and is entitled to legal representation, just the opposite is true for civil forfeiture cases. Because the action is civil in nature, the property owner has no legal right to representation and the property is deemed “guilty” until the owner proves that it was not involved in a crime. The practice has come under intense criticism, following reports in The New Yorker, The Washington Post, and most recently, on John Oliver’s “Last Week Tonight.”

The Institute for Justice is the nation’s leading legal advocate against civil forfeiture. In addition to waging court battles on behalf of property owners facing civil forfeiture, IJ also recently launched EndForfeiture.com, a wide-ranging online initiative to educate and engage citizens and legislators to fight civil forfeiture.

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