Innocent Until Proven Rich
Asset forfeiture, sans proof a crime has been committed, is a government-sanctioned -- and practiced -- crime against citizens, and it needs to be stopped. Isaiah Thompson writes in Philly City Paper that their local D.A. seizes millions in alleged crime money -- whether there's been a crime committed or not:
When Philadelphia Police officers stopped Dwayne Marks as he was driving north on Broad Street near Temple University last year, Marks says he wasn't particularly worried. Marks, who is a black man in his late 30s from East Mount Airy, has faced drug charges in the past -- but he's straightened up, he says. When the police asked whether he had a criminal background, "I told them, 'Yeah,'" he recalls. "I told them the truth."
As he saw it, he had done nothing wrong and had nothing to hide. And so, when police asked to search his truck, Marks said they could go ahead.
He describes the encounter, initially that is, as calm. It was when police found more than $6,000 in cash in his car -- money he says was related to a number of rental properties he owns, he says -- that things changed.
"They ... took me down to the district, handcuffed me, took my money ... [searched] my whole truck again. Then they got a dog to sniff my whole truck out -- and still didn't find nothing." There were no drugs on Marks or on his vehicle; no charges were filed. But the interaction wasn't over, Marks says: "They got mad. ... They said, 'We're going to make you go to court for your money, then.'"
Marks would soon find himself sucked into a strange, upside-down corner of the legal system, where the burden of proof would be reversed to rest on the accused, where those opposing him would seem to call the shots -- and where the minor matter of his undisputed innocence of any charge would not seem to be a factor.
That police officers regularly confiscate cash from persons arrested in Philadelphia might not come as a surprise. State law allows police to seize money -- and other personal property, including cars, guns, even real estate -- from suspected criminals, as possible evidence in a criminal trial.
What you might not know is that that money is likely destined to become not just evidence but revenue for the Police Department and the District Attorney's Office prosecuting the case -- long before those alleged drug dealers are ever proven guilty or innocent in court, and often regardless of the outcome of any criminal proceedings.
By way of a process known as "civil asset forfeiture," carried out in Philly by the Philadelphia District Attorney's Office, the DA may sue to take ownership of confiscated property and, if successful, keep it.
The law's intent is straightforward enough: to target drug criminals (and, to a lesser extent, other types of criminals) by going after the proceeds and mechanisms of their crimes, and to use those ill-gotten gains for the benefit of the public.
The implementation, though, is more complicated. In Philadelphia, the law has laid the framework for a civil asset forfeiture program that brings in upwards of $6 million a year from cases against thousands of Philadelphians, with little oversight of how cases are pursued or how profits are distributed. And, as Marks learned all too well, that process has little regard for a property owner's guilt or innocence.
"Probable cause" has become "probable cash":
"Find a black guy, let him walk around the neighborhood with some money," Lawton suggested. "He'll be stopped."