Civil Forfeiture, From The Top

It’s like the last 40 years never happened. Sure, you’re all woke about in rem asset forfeiture now. The stories of travesties abound, of innocent people whose cash was stolen by cops, left to fight back if the cost of possibly winning didn’t exceed the cost of walking away. We’ve been here. We’ve done this.

From the early days of civil asset forfeiture, when almost everyone locked arms in support of the “take the profit out of crime” trope because it only happened to drug dealers, we’ve come a long way. And now gone back to square one.

President Donald Trump said on Tuesday there was “no reason” to curb law enforcement agencies that seize cash, vehicles and other assets of people suspected of crimes, a practice that some lawmakers and activists have criticized for denying legal rights.

The issue of civil asset forfeiture, created to disrupt the activities of organized crime groups, arose when sheriffs from around the United States told Trump at a White House meeting that they were under pressure to ease the practice.

“I’d like to look into that,” Trump said. “There’s no reason for that.”

Aw, come on. We were way past that, miles beyond that. And now, it’s as if the past generation of discussion, of insight, of acknowledgement that civil asset forfeiture was a terrible idea, never happened. Not because “there’s no reason for that,” but because Trump, elected because he was unbound by the constraints of knowledge and experience, doesn’t know what the exceptionally good reasons are.

Yet, the reaction to this structural cluelessness didn’t focus on his lack of grasp of the issues and problems, but rather on his joke.

Later, Sheriff Harold Eavenson of Rockwall County, Texas, told Trump of his response to a state lawmaker who had introduced legislation requiring suspects first be convicted before assets could be seized.

“I told him that the cartel would build a monument to him in Mexico if he could get that legislation passed,” Eavenson said.

“Who was the state senator?” Trump asked.

“You want to give his name? We’ll destroy his career,” the president deadpanned, to laughter.

An incredibly stupid joke, in remarkably poor taste and reflecting the lack of judgment that will make Trump quotable for generations. But still a joke. Sure, it may well reflect his inner authoritarian tendencies, to use the weight of his office to crush the careers of those some yahoo tells him stand in the way of hegemony, but that’s what you get when you elect someone to be an outsider to national politics and “can-do” businessman.

You wanted a strong leader because you had enough of tepid ones who accomplished nothing. You aren’t put off by Trump’s inept actions because, mistakes aside, at least he’s doing what he said he would do. Plus, it’s not hurting you and yours, so you won’t lose much sleep over other people having to take a bullet for the team. And even this joke, stupid as it may be and likely representative of his inner beast, doesn’t bother you all that much. After all, politicians are the enemy, the ones who failed you and this great nation when you were sure it was all so very simple to fix.

But civil asset forfeiture? The arguments in favor of it were good enough when it was only used against those bad people, those drug dealers. But when it’s used as a revenue generator by margarita-loving cops against people who not only haven’t been convicted of a crime, but aren’t even alleged to be criminals, that means it can touch your life. When you are driving down the highway and a cop gloms the cash in your wallet and tells you it’s your problem to get it back, the unfairness of it all comes home.

And yet, the President of the United States doesn’t know the first thing about asset forfeiture. He has no clue how it started, what problems have since developed, the in-depth discussions of why it’s wrong, how it’s wrong, how it destroys the lives of the poor schmuck who made the mistake of driving down the wrong stretch of road with out-of-state plates.

The problem isn’t that “there’s no reason,” but that Trump doesn’t know the reason, and doesn’t find it worth his very valuable time to learn the reason before spouting off.

Perhaps if he had a sit-down with a different group first, before Sheriff Harold Eavenson, he would have come out the opposite way. After all, when someone knows absolutely nothing about an issue, the first voice he hears will often mold his views. It’s not that Trump was a dyed-in-the-wool fan of asset forfeiture. Had it been one of his hotels targeted by the beloved Obama Department of Justice’s forfeiture machine, you can bet he would know how “unfair” it was.

But it wasn’t his property, and Eavenson caught Trump’s uninformed ear while you were screaming “Trump’s an asshole, Trump’s literally Hitler” on social media, and trying to figure out why this wasn’t making Trump collapse in the corner in a puddle of tears for being so hated by the SJWs.

So his supporters got what they paid for, a bull to do what others were too timid to do, based on the least amount of knowledge and greatest shallowness of thought. You know, the sort that you use every day when making critical decisions in your life.

His adversaries, on the other hand, got what they paid for too, driving away any opportunity to assert any influence on this empty vessel, leaving it to guys like Eavenson to fill the empty head of the president with his desires while the din of screaming and tears fades into background noise.

And here we are, back to square one. It won’t just be civil asset forfeiture, but the many significant issues that require in-depth understanding of law and constitutional rights. Since the Obama administration failed so miserably to fulfill its promise, the questions remain open for his successor. For Trump, it’s as if nothing in the last couple generations happened, because he knows nothing about it. But as long as he’s “doing something,” it’s all cool, until he does something to you.

18 thoughts on “Civil Forfeiture, From The Top

  1. JAF005

    Not to forgive Trump for another one of his off-the-cuff reactions (I have no doubt they will continue), but I would suspect that when he is fully briefed on the fundamental issues around Asset Forfeiture he will come around.

    I base this suspicion on having been a real estate developer in the past (no where near the scale of Trump), and having dealt with a multitude of local, state and federal agencies as well a bunch of approved special interest orgs that are locked at the hip with government. Each and every one of them has their hand out looking to get paid, some of it you can plan for, but much of it seems to magically appear right when you think you’ve navigated the red-tape. I haven’t met a single real estate developer who doesn’t have a profoundly cynical/vitriolic view of government based revenue generating programs.

    Trump’s problem is that he can’t help but play to whatever crowd is in front of him, I hope (maybe I’m projecting) his cynicism (if it’s there) will help him recognize this program for what it is.

    Now, on the other hand, if you believe that the Dark Lord, Steve Bannon, is actually the puppet master of this administration, there is good news; type this into google ( forfeiture).

    1. SHG Post author

      I suspect you’re right about Trump’s perspective as to govt revenue generators, but connecting dots doesn’t appear to be a strength of his. As for Bannon, I left that part of your comment in against my better judgment. Please go to reddit if you want to do conspiracy theories.

    2. Jim Cline

      “Not to forgive Trump for another one of his off-the-cuff reactions (I have no doubt they will continue), but I would suspect that when he is fully briefed on the fundamental issues around Asset Forfeiture he will come around.”

      I think the problem is he doesn’t see the need to get fully briefed. As Scott pointed out he tends to form his view based on whatever his friends and admirers tell him.

  2. JAF005

    The Dark Lord part was meant to be humorous (I know nowadays one has to be careful with humor) with a little bit of sarcasm aimed at the current state of our hysterical media, but the reporting from Breitbart on Civil Asset Forfeiture is more or less straight down the line in its objections

    1. SHG Post author

      Sorry to see that your reply button was broken right at the time you decided to explain your tangential leap down the off-topic rabbit hole, making this doubly problematic. You assume the “dark lord” part was the problem. It wasn’t. It was bringing Bannon into this at all. So now you’ve managed to not only fail the “reply button” test, but also make an erroneous assumption and go absurdly off-topic. This has been fun.

  3. REvers

    Given his enthusiasm for eminent domain (at least when he thinks he’ll be the beneficiary) I would expect Trump to have no issues with forfeiture.

    1. SHG Post author

      His enthusiasm has historically been for what’s good for him. Now that he’s making decisions for others, one can never be sure which side he’ll take.

      1. Keith

        Given his enthusiasm for seeing positive things said about himself seems to know no bounds. Therefore, he’ll do what’s in the best interests of America to be known as our bestest president ever.

        See how this logic can basically go anywhere you want it to?

      2. REvers

        In Trump’s world, there is only Trump. Trump will do whatever is best for Trump. It might be hard to analyze and get to the bottom line, but once you’ve figured it out you’ll know exactly what he will do.

        1. SHG Post author

          You’ve oversimplified it. Not every issue relates back to his world of experience or direct self-interest. Most will only tangentially reflect back on him, as in how much everyone adores him for being wonderful. Assuming he’s as narcissistic as he appears to be, then work toward using it. If you’re sitting around trying to figure it out while the other side is in there persuading him, you lose. Not a smart approach.

  4. Keith

    One of the major problems with civil asset forfeiture is that the public doesn’t even realize that innocent people get hurt when it’s used for it’s purported purpose.

    Sure, it’s easy to look at the kid traveling with money to put down on his new apartment, or the immigrant traveling with a down payment on a business because he doesn’t quite trust banks — but even real bad guys, have relatives that aren’t involved in their “bad stuff” and cops couldn’t give a damn, so long as the family members have a nice car they really really want.

    The practice is graft, pure and simple. Want to make it stop, force all proceeds to be used for criminal defense lawyers.

    1. SHG Post author

      I love the phrase “pure and simple,” because that makes it so. Oh wait, it doesn’t. There are civil forfeitures that are well founded. Trust me on this. But given the potential for abuse, the existence of abuse and the incentive to err toward abuse, the far better and more rational policy choice is to not allow civil asset forfeiture and let the occasional criminal get away with his profits. Blackstone’s ratio applies.

      1. Boffin

        I’m intrigued by your statement that some civil forfeitures are well founded. It seems to this naive non-lawyer that this process pretty clearly violates at least the spirit of the 5th amendment, and is generally unnecessary. Would you please give an pointer to a case where civil forfeiture was used to the benefit of society, and the result could not have been obtained in a criminal prosecution?

        1. SHG Post author

          A pointer to a case, as in you want me to spend my time researching a case because you’re a curious but naive non-lawyer and my time is well would be spent satisfying your curiosity because you have a keyboard and satisfying your curiosity is the center of my universe? No.

          But I’ll give you a fact pattern: Apartment leased by strawman, no occupants at the time, is raided based on warrant obtained via controlled buy. Inside, they find a kilo of coke and $120,000 in bundles. They have no one to arrest or charge. The drugs are seized as contraband, but the money has to go through in rem forfeiture. See a problem with this forfeiture?

  5. Lawrence

    I was sensitized to this issue by SHG’s many posts on this subject. I therefore find it demoralizing how little coverage this extremely important issue has received. This would have been the chance for the press to educate the public about this. They have missed the opportunity.

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