Civil Forfeiture

Highway Robbery Continues to Be the Law of the Land

(Lew Rockwell)—Seizure fever is toxifying law enforcement across the nation. For more than thirty years, federal, state, and local government agencies have plundered citizens on practically any harebrained accusation or pretext.

You could be at risk of being pilfered by officialdom anytime you sit behind a steering wheel. Between 2001 and 2014, lawmen seized more than $2.5 billion in cash from sixty thousand travelers on the nation’s highways—with no criminal charges in most cases, according to the Washington Post. Federal, state, and local law enforcement have institutionalized shakedowns on the nation’s highways to the point that “forfeiture corridors are the new speed traps,” as Mother Jones observed.

Police can almost always find an excuse to pull someone over. Gerald Arenberg, executive director of the National Association of Chiefs of Police, told me in a 1996 interview, “We have so damn many laws, you can’t drive the streets without breaking the law.” The Washington Post reported that police set up “rolling checkpoints on busy highways and pulled over motorists for minor violations, such as following too closely or improper signaling,” and “looked for supposed ‘indicators’ of criminal activity, which can include such things as trash on the floor of a vehicle, or abundant energy drinks.”

In Tenaha, Texas, authorities confiscated $3 million from motorists passing through East Texas. The names of the court filings capture Tenaha’s rapacity, such as State of Texas v. One Gold Crucifix. “The police had confiscated a simple gold cross that a woman wore around her neck after pulling her over for a minor traffic violation. No contraband was reported, no criminal charges were filed, and no traffic ticket was issued,” the New Yorker noted. If drivers “refused to part with their money, officers threatened to arrest them on false money laundering charges and other serious felonies,” an American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit charged. Tenaha police stopped a twenty-seven-year-old black man who worked as a chicken slicer in an Arkansas Tyson plant and fleeced him of $3,900 after accusing him of “driving too close to the white line.” After the police warned Jennifer Boatright that they would take custody of her children if she refused to surrender the thousands of dollars she carried to buy a used car, she burst into tears and thought: “Where are we? Is this some kind of foreign country, where they’re selling people’s kids off?” The American Civil Liberties Union lawsuit and the Texas legislature compelled the town to cease the abusive seizures in 2012. However, most victims never got their property back.

In 2016, Muskogee County, Oklahoma, deputy sheriffs hit the sirens and pulled over a forty-year-old Burmese refugee driving down Highway 69 for a broken taillight. Eh Wah, a naturalized US citizen living in Dallas, was the manager for a Christian rock band that had been on tour raising more than $50,000 for a Thai orphanage and a Christian college in Burma. Police found the money and a drug dog alerted, so the money was seized—even though Wah had papers documenting his mission and the source of the income. No drugs were found on Wah’s vehicle, but a Muskogee deputy later insisted, “The fact that in this particular case we didn’t find drugs doesn’t mean it was a false hit” by the dog. Wah was interrogated and threatened for six hours; he was told, “You are going to jail tonight.” It was a terrifying experience for someone whose English was shaky and who fled a nation where the police were tyrannical. The sheriff’s department kept the money but let Wah travel on. Five weeks after he left Oklahoma, Wah was charged with “acquiring proceeds from a drug activity, a felony.” The primary “evidence” was the dog’s alert. The Oklahoma perfidy was torpedoed by Dan Alban, an Institute for Justice attorney who has thwarted many outrageous cash seizures. Alban took Wah’s case and told the Muskogee Phoenix that the timing of the charge suggests, “They were trying to strong-arm Eh Wah so that he would give up the money in the civil forfeiture case in exchange for a plea deal in the criminal case.” On the same day the Washington Post published an article on the case, Muskogee County dropped the charge and promised to send a full refund.

Perverse incentives propel plunder. Police in many states use confiscated property to pay their own salaries, bonuses, and vacations. A Missouri police chief said that forfeiture money was “like pennies from heaven . . . that get you a toy.” Federal agencies partner with local and state law enforcement to enable them to evade state laws limiting seizures of private property. Under a program euphemistically called “equitable sharing” (which sounds better than “shared plunder”), local and state law enforcement agencies retain most of the property they seize when they team up with the feds.

In South Carolina, police keep 95 percent of the assets they commandeer. Drivers’ cash is routinely seized after they are stopped for picayune offenses. As the Greenville News reported,

Ramando Moore was cited for having an open container [of alcohol] in Richland County in 2015; he lost $604. Plexton Denard Hunter was pulled over for a seatbelt violation in 2015 in Richland County and had $541 seized. Tesla Carter, another seatbelt violation, this time in Anderson in 2015. She lost $1,361.

Most police seizures of cash involved less than a thousand dollars—a trivial amount for serious drug traffickers. “Black men . . . represent 13 percent of the state’s population. Yet 65 percent of all citizens targeted for civil forfeiture in the state are black males,” according to a 2019 investigation by South Carolinian newspapers.

In Phelps County, Missouri, police have seized millions of dollars in cash and property from people traveling on Interstate 44. Two-thirds of Phelps County forfeiture victims have Hispanic names. Phelps County deputies justify seizures simply by asserting that the owners are shady characters—with evidence such as “driving a rental vehicle . . . bloodshot eyes, nervousness or even air fresheners hanging from the rearview mirror.” Drivers were commonly stopped for failing to signal before changing lanes, another tell-tale sign of drug trafficking. Phelps County police “almost never file state criminal charges against those whose cash they seize, nor does it make big drug seizures during these stops targeting cash,” reported a 2020 investigation by St. Louis Public Radio.

In 2021, the feds partnered with local police to commence robbing armored cars. Though thirty-six states have legalized marijuana for recreational or medical use, federal law continues to prohibit engaging in cannabis transactions. Local police in California and Kansas began stopping and searching armored cars owned by Empyreal Logistics, which transported cash from licensed marijuana dispensaries. More than a million dollars was taken and split between local and federal lawmen. The Federal Bureau of Investigation justified the seizures because the proceeds were derived from narcotics crimes or money laundering—even though state law in California explicitly permits the transport of money from legal cannabis operations. In May 2022, the feds and California police departments agreed to return the seized money after Empyreal signed a settlement declaring, “San Bernardino deputies are not highway robbers as previously reported in the media.” Alas, the official statement did not deter a local paper, the Riverside Press-Enterprise, from summarizing the resolution: “The San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department has agreed to stop operating like highway robbers.”

Forfeiture is a rigged game in which low-income Americans suffer worst. Justice Clarence Thomas wrote in 2017, “These forfeiture operations frequently target the poor and other groups least able to defend their interests in forfeiture proceedings.” Similarly, Texas Supreme Court Justice Don Willett declared in a 2014 dissent, “Civil forfeiture . . . now disproportionately ensnares those least capable of protecting themselves, poor Texans who usually capitulate without a fight because mounting a defense is too costly.” “Due process” in forfeiture cases often depends solely on the media coverage an abuse receives. Sporadic government defeats are no consolation to forfeiture victims who cannot afford a lawyer to fight for their rights.

Almost two hundred and fifty years ago, Arthur Lee of Virginia aptly proclaimed, “The right of property is the guardian of every other right, and to deprive the people of this, is to deprive them of their liberty.” But increasingly, private property is something that officialdom merely tolerates until they concoct some pretext to seize it.

If police can detain and plunder Americans as they please whenever people drive down the road, all the other rights and liberties in the Constitution are of scant consolation. And if politicians and the Supreme Court don’t care enough to end the forfeiture travesty, all their other claims of devotion to freedom are not worth a tinker’s damn.