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21st Century Organized Crime

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With civil asset forfeiture, the real organized crime in this country these days is not the Mafia, it’s the police. Or certain police departments anyway that self-fund by stealing your stuff whether or not you have actually committed a drug crime:

The seminars offered police officers some useful tips on seizing property from suspected criminals. Don’t bother with jewelry (too hard to dispose of) and computers (“everybody’s got one already”), the experts counseled. Do go after flat screen TVs, cash and cars. Especially nice cars.

In one seminar, captured on video in September, Harry S. Connelly Jr., the city attorney of Las Cruces, N.M., called them “little goodies.” And then Mr. Connelly described how officers in his jurisdiction could not wait to seize one man’s “exotic vehicle” outside a local bar.

“A guy drives up in a 2008 Mercedes, brand new,” he explained. “Just so beautiful, I mean, the cops were undercover and they were just like ‘Ahhhh.’ And he gets out and he’s just reeking of alcohol. And it’s like, ‘Oh, my goodness, we can hardly wait.’ ”

Mr. Connelly was talking about a practice known as civil asset forfeiture, which allows the government, without ever securing a conviction or even filing a criminal charge, to seize property suspected of having ties to crime. The practice, expanded during the war on drugs in the 1980s, has become a staple of law enforcement agencies because it helps finance their work. It is difficult to tell how much has been seized by state and local law enforcement, but under a Justice Department program, the value of assets seized has ballooned to $4.3 billion in the 2012 fiscal year from $407 million in 2001. Much of that money is shared with local police forces.

The practice of civil forfeiture has come under fire in recent months, amid a spate of negative press reports and growing outrage among civil rights advocates, libertarians and members of Congress who have raised serious questions about the fairness of the practice, which critics say runs roughshod over due process rights. In one oft-cited case, a Philadelphia couple’s home was seized after their son made $40 worth of drug sales on the porch. Despite that opposition, many cities and states are moving to expand civil seizures of cars and other assets. The seminars, some of which were captured on video, raise a curtain on how law enforcement officials view the practice.

From Orange County, N.Y., to Rio Rancho, N.M., forfeiture operations are being established or expanded. In September, Albuquerque, which has long seized the cars of suspected drunken drivers, began taking them from men suspected of trying to pick up prostitutes, landing seven cars during a one-night sting. Arkansas has expanded its seizure law to allow the police to take cash and assets with suspected connections to terrorism, and Illinois moved to make boats fair game under its D.W.I. laws, in addition to cars. In Mercer County, N.J., a prosecutor preaches the “gospel” that forfeiture is not just for drug arrests — cars can be seized in shoplifting and statutory rape cases as well.

And if you are found not guilty of these crimes, do you get your stuff back? Ha ha ha. Of course not.

This obviously should be illegal and I’m glad there is push back growing. But at the same time, police departments are looking to increase their seizures. It’s a plague that must stop.

Another gift from the War on Drugs. Just Say No kids!

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