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Robin Smith / June 4, 2018

Legal Plunder as Law Enforcement

Tell that to the American citizen stripped of $58k seven months ago with no crime.

Most will skim this headline and think, “Nah, this doesn’t apply to me.”

Well, yes it does.

If you own property that could be stolen from you and then used in some type of criminal activity, your property, once recovered, doesn’t have to be returned to you. If you simply possess a large amount of cash and are stopped and searched, the money can be taken and held for an administrative review to determine if, indeed, it was lawfully obtained or possessed. It may not be returned.

So, in reality, there’s a real possibility your life may be impacted by the issue of civil asset forfeiture. Regardless, it’s an issue that emphatically demonstrates the metastasizing cancer of bureaucratic government.

What is civil asset forfeiture and why should you care?

Civil asset forfeiture is the confiscation of property by law enforcement at the federal, state and local levels when that property is alleged to have been derived from or used in the commission of a crime. Unlike criminal asset forfeiture, property is seized and held from individuals or entities without a conviction or even formal charges filed. In short, there is no requirement of proof of guilt, a conviction or even formal charges. It’s entirely legal, and there’s often little recourse against it.

Despite reforms or the abolition of civil asset forfeiture in roughly half the states since 2014, the federal government is still using this tool as a tactic in fighting drug- and gang-related crimes. Too often, it sweeps up innocent people. Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a proponent of the tactic when fighting true organized drug trafficking and gang activity that notoriously deal in cash. Unfortunately, that means increasing the use of it.

Granted, in 1985 when the Justice Department’s Asset Forfeiture Fund first collected $27 million, it was within its intended bounds to address money involved in drug trafficking. However, in 2015, near the end of Eric Holder’s tenure as AG and despite Obama administration declarations that the practice of property confiscation without a conviction had stopped, the fund had ballooned to $5 billion.

So why has the practice become so widespread?

If you don’t remember the movie scene, you’ve likely seen the memes on social media of Tom Cruise playing Jerry McGuire, a high-priced sports agent, yelling into the phone to please his celebrity-athlete portrayed by actor Cuba Gooding, “Show me the money!” Just as in professional sports, it seems there’s an underside of law enforcement that’s earning its ill-repute around the notion of money. You see, the assets seized are liquidated with the revenues going to the arresting agency.

Still, there’s no way innocent people are caught up in this, right?

Yes, they are. The most recent abuse of this practice occurred in October 2017 at the Cleveland Hopkins International Airport, where Rustem Kazazi boarded his first flight connecting to Newark, New Jersey, on his way to his native Albania to make repairs on a family home and property. As a result of a routine security check, airport security seized and held the $58,100 in cash placed in his carry-on luggage.

A retired Albanian policeman, Kazazi had been selected in 2005 through the visa lottery to enter the U.S. and he became a citizen in 2010. Due to concerns about the integrity and safety of 12 years of savings in weak local banks in Albania, he decided to travel with cash. Kazazi arranged his personal treasure in three separate bundles along with bank receipts documenting withdrawals and records pertaining to his property in Tirana, the capital city.

At the Ohio airport, however, officials refused Kazazi access to an interpreter and denied him the ability to contact his family for help. They physically searched him extensively, finding no drugs, no contraband and no connection to an alleged or actual crime. His “crime” was to have a large amount of legal currency on his person as he legally traveled.

After the interrogation, Kazazi was given a receipt for “U.S. Currency” with no dollar amount recorded. Now, more than seven months later, the savings of this family are still being held with only a notice of seizure declaring, “Enforcement activity indicates that the currency was involved in a smuggling/drug trafficking/money laundering operation.” No formal charges. No court date. No evidence. Instead, the Kazazi family has had to resort to a lawsuit to have their money returned.

There are many other incidents of the seizure of cars, property, homes and cash without conviction of crimes or even charges filed.

What Fourth Amendment?

Civil asset forfeiture, as noted in the above citation of seizure, is permitted through the jurisdiction of in rem, the Latin term meaning “against the property.” This refers to the power given a court over real property within that court’s jurisdiction. Pure and simple, the use of civil asset forfeiture regards the action against the inanimate object or property, not the perpetrator, and thus circumvents the need to charge a criminal.

Does this sound like a justice system or a legal system styled to convolute, obstruct and run out the clock? Granted, where legitimate crimes are committed, related assets seized should be liquidated to offset costs of pursuit, prosecution and incarceration. That’s called restitution. But as The Heritage Foundation cited in its 2015 report and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas has recognized, abuse of this practice is not uncommon and must be halted.

In Frederic Bastiat’s timeless 1850 book The Law, the French economist spoke of the legal plunder of excessive taxation. He argued that the seizure of property from one to employ for another’s use is criminal for all but the State. In 2018, civil asset forfeiture, while intended by some as a tool for good, has become legal plunder to fuel the treasuries of various agencies.

So, if you’re ever asked to show your money, it better not be in cash.

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