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by Peter Moskos

March 23, 2011

Civil Forfeiture for a Quarter-Ounce of Weed

So, if you have a quarter-ounce of weed in your home, should police be able to take all your possessions. That's what can happen and has happened in Michigan. And the problem is getting worse in tight economic times.

If you do think it is OK, why shouldn't police be able to take your car when you speed, or better yet, a parking violation? Just what is it about drugs that makes the normal rules not apply?

Radley Balko writes about it in Reason:
Legal niceties are often the only distinction between civil asset forfeiture and a shakedown. [Moskos here: I'm against civil forfeiture. But every time I hear the term "legal niceties" I reach for my gun. Those "niceties" are the law. And that's a pretty important distinction to make, at least for law enforcement.]
Informants are often drug dealers, who benefit from ratting on the competition, or addicts who tip off police in exchange for money, which they then use to purchase drugs. It is not at all uncommon for police to overlook an informant's own drug activity.
Police likewise manufacture crimes when they set up drug deals. The routine deception and betrayal involved in befriending someone, asking him for a favor, and then punishing him for helping you out would be recognized as outrageous in almost any other context.
Even within the context of an unjust prohibition system, there are cops who do their jobs by the letter of the law. But we should not be surprised when some of the police officers we ask to enforce morally suspect laws day after day, year after year, eventually cross the line from actions that are unethical but legal to acts that are both unethical and illegal.
[thanks to D.K.]


Brett said...

I like civil forfeiture because it takes drug proceeds away from drug dealers, but I think it is a slippery slope that can be problematic. Several years back, Oregon changed its laws on civil forfeiture requiring a certain percentage of forfeiture going to rehab programs as well as several other changes. I think that was a good change. I have a hard time believing any state has forfeiture laws allowing seizure when the only evidence is a 1/4 ounce of weed and half a pain pill. If so, its way upside down, but I imagine there is more to the story than what the obviously biased writer lets on.

PCM said...

Believe it.

Drugs is drugs.

To call Balko "biased" doesn't do him justice. He does have an opinion. A strong one. And one I sometimes disagree with. But he doesn't make stuff up. These laws are constantly abused.

There are countless cases of abuse of civil forfeiture laws.

For more see: http://www.ij.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=3114&Itemid=165

Certainly taking the incentive away from local governments and police departments to line their own pockets would be good start (money should go into the general state funds).

The problem is the burden of proof shifts to you, the accused. There's no disincentive or system of checks and balance. The seizing agency doesn't have to have probable cause and doesn't even have to convict you of a crime. And if they're wrong, they just have to give everything back (after you go through a big hassle to prove your innocence).

And it's not just in Michigan (or requiring a criminally aggressive police lieutenant).

No matter where the money goes, I think the abuses of civil forfeiture far outweigh the benefits (taking criminally gained money away from criminals). Government shouldn't have that power. Nor should the local police department. And it's not like the long-term impacts of forfeiture have been beneficial.

You know any drug-free areas that have come about though civil forfeiture? I don't.