The Hidden Costs of Unjust Property Seizures

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BY RONALD FRASER- For decades law enforcement agencies have used property seizures to break up large criminal organizations.  But with the rise of the so-called drug war, seizure and forfeiture of personal property owned by innocent citizens have skyrocketed.

When police officers — often working with faulty evidence — merely suspect that your boat, vehicle or cash has been involved in a crime, the property can be seized under civil forfeiture laws.  In 44 states your property will not be returned until you, the legal property owner, prove that the property was not involved in a criminal activity.  Only in California, Colorado, Florida, Kansas, Michigan and Oregon must the government prove that the property was guilty.


Property forfeiture is a big money maker for law enforcement, especially small town departments.  A 2008 National Public Radio report found that some Texas sheriffs depend on seized assets for up to one-third of their departments’ budgets.  And nationwide, in 2008, properties valued at over $1 billion were seized by police and then made available for use by police departments nationwide.

But statistics can’t measure the human toll of mistaken seizures.  According to the Washington based Institute for Justice, “a significant percentage of state and local forfeiture actions are initiated against low-level drug offenders, rather than the high-level targets that forfeiture advocates claim to be aiming for.”

That is why the following stories, drawn from the Institute’s new Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture report, are valuable reminders that while the U.S. Constitution still forbids unreasonable searches and property seizures, the Constitution is getting badly battered.

Shakedown in Texas.  Between 2006 and 2008, Tenaha, Tex. law enforcement officers stopped more than 140 mostly black, out-of-state vehicles, which included a grandmother from Akron and a family from Maryland.  While the officers alleged that the roadway was a major drug corridor, none of plaintiffs were arrested for, much less convicted of, violating drug laws.

Upon arresting the motorists, officers took them to jail and threatened to file charges unless they signed a pre-notarized statement relinquishing any claim to their valuables.  Officers seized cash, cars, cell phones and jewelry.  In one case, when the officers discovered $8,500 in cash that a Tennessee motorist planned to use to buy a car, officers threatened to charge him with money laundering unless he turned over the cash.  He surrendered the money and only after hiring a lawyer was able to get it back.

An attorney representing some of the plaintiffs estimates that Tenaha officials improperly seized more than $3 million between 2006 and 2008.

Georgia Speed Trap. In 2007 Lamar County, Ga. sheriff deputies stopped Chris Hunt for speeding.  The officers said they smelled burning marijuana and alcohol in the car — claims Hunt denies — and confiscated $5,581 in cash Hunt said were profits from his car refinishing business.  A canine later detected drug residue on the cash but the officers did not find a testable amount of drugs.  Hunt was never charged with a crime.  “It was my hard earned cash,” said Hunt.  “They had guns and badges and they just took it.” Only after hiring an attorney and filing a claim did he receive back one-half of the confiscated money as part of a negotiated settlement.

The Institute’s report notes that chemical tests show that up to 90% of U.S. currency tested is tainted with cocaine, and a federal Drug Enforcement Agency scientist has recommended that trace analysis for seizure be stopped.

Elderly Abuse in Pennsylvania. Margaret Davis, a 77 year-old Philadelphia, Penn. homeowner with serious medical problems, was in the habit of leaving her door unlocked so neighbors could routinely check in on her.  In 2001, police chased alleged drug dealers through Davis’s front door but they escaped out the back.  The police found drugs in plain view, presumably left by the fleeing suspects.  Later that year the Philadelphia District Attorney filed a motion to seize Davis’s home even though she was never a party to any drug dealing.  Only in 2003 was an attorney able to reach an agreement with the city to withdraw the seizure petition.

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Ronald Fraser, Ph.D., writes on public policy issues for the DKT Liberty Project, a Washington-based civil liberties organization.  Write him at: