By Rowan Conybeare and Hunter Davis, Summer 2015 Leadership Conference Education Fund Interns
On April 15, 22-year-old Joseph Rivers of Romulus, Michigan, boarded an Amtrak train to Los Angeles with the hope of pursuing a career in the music industry. What Joseph didn’t know was that his dream of starting a new life would be stifled before he even arrived in California.
At the Albuquerque Amtrak station, Joseph’s train was boarded by Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) officials who began asking passengers where they were headed and why. Joseph was the only African-American passenger in his car, and when the DEA officials got to him, the officers strayed from simple questioning and asked to search his bag. Joseph complied and answered all questions honestly – he had nothing to hide. Inside his bag, the officers found no drugs or contraband. Instead, they found $16,000 in cash, still in the bank envelope. Joseph withdrew the money from a bank before he left Michigan to start a new life in Los Angeles, but the DEA officers didn’t believe him and said they suspected that the money was tied to narcotics. Although Rivers’ mother corroborated his story, his money was seized. Joseph was forced to return to Michigan, having found himself a victim of civil asset forfeiture – a controversial legal tool used by law enforcement officials and one that Rivers, like many, did not even know existed.
Joseph Rivers told his story at a recent briefing on civil asset forfeiture in Washington, D.C. Rivers (left) with his mother, Mary Jackson, and Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference.
Though the practice of civil asset forfeiture has deep roots that stem back to the Navigation Acts of the 17th century, the modern practice is grounded in the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984. Civil asset forfeiture allows law enforcement officials to seize assets from individuals suspected of engaging in illicit (particularly drug-related) activity. This practice is based on the archaic notion that property is guilty of a crime by association, and thus allows federal, state, and local officers to seize assets in the form of cash, homes, cars, and more. The mere suspicion that assets were accumulated through the drug trade allows law enforcement officials to seize someone’s property in the absence of a warrant or indictment. Police suspicion rises exponentially if you are a person of color and, indeed, the vast majority of victims of this practice are people of color, like Joseph Rivers.
As Rivers’ case highlights, the justification for civil asset forfeiture can be as thin as one’s train was headed to a “known drug hot spot” – Los Angeles, California. With justifications this ambiguous, it’s important to mention that police have a monetary incentive to abuse this practice. In civil asset forfeiture cases, law enforcement agents are often motivated by profit. According to a Washington Post investigation, $2.5 billion in assets were seized between 2001 and 2014, and $1.7 billion, or nearly 70 percent, of these assets were pocketed by police. According to Brad Cates, former Head of the DEA Asset Forfeiture Branch, this has perpetuated a “give me a man and I’ll find him a crime” style of policing. Rivers’ testimony only solidifies this claim. According to him, after the officers found his money, they looked for a justification to take it. The DEA officers assumed that a call to his mother would be the key that they needed, however, even when she corroborated his story, they did not relent. Any explanation, however stretched, would suffice.
Law enforcement officers are all too aware that once they seize someone’s assets, it is exceptionally difficult to get them back. In cases of forfeitures of relatively small cash amounts, the money seized is often far less than the legal fees it would take to win the money back. And in cases where an individual has a significant portion of their assets seized, they often lack the resources necessary to seek justice. Since 2001, some 62,000 Americans have fallen victim to this unjust and undemocratic practice. Legal changes are long overdue.
Last January, Sen. Rand Paul, R. Ky., proposed an updated FAIR Act in the Senate to address the abuses of civil asset forfeiture. Currently, the FAIR Act is being reviewed by the Senate Judiciary Committee. There are four key components to the bill:
- All people are promised legal representation if they are subjected to civil asset forfeiture;
- Government officials must have “clear and convincing evidence” upon seizing assets;
- Government officials must have compelling evidence that the person was aware of the illegal activities;
- And ensure that courts are not “constitutionally excessive” when determining a civil asset forfeiture case.
While this bill has not yet passed, Cates – a panelist at a recent Congressional briefing – stated that a 2015 study found that 80 percent of Americans are in favor of civil asset forfeiture reform. Reform efforts are not only supported by the American people, but they have also attained clear, bipartisan support. The House equivalent of Paul’s bill has been co-sponsored by 17 Democrats and 29 Republicans.