If you want to be depressed today, read Radley Balko's article in Reason on asset forfeiture. Despite reforms at the Federal level (which still stop short of justice, in my mind) abusive laws still exist in many states, allowing police departments to seize and keep assets merely on a "probable cause" evidence standard. The laws are basically a license to steal, as it is almost impossible to reclaim money or property once seized, and police get to keep the money and assets for their own use, so they are going to defend the takings, and the laws that allow the takings, like mother bears.
In a 2001 study published in the Journal of Criminal Justice, the University of Texas at Dallas criminologist John Worral surveyed 1,400 police departments around the country on their use of forfeiture and the way they incorporated seized assets into their budgets. Worral, who describes himself as agnostic on the issue, concluded that "a substantial proportion of law enforcement agencies are dependent on civil asset forfeiture" and that "forfeiture is coming to be viewed not only as a budgetary supplement, but as a necessary source of income." Almost half of surveyed police departments with more than 100 law enforcement personnel said forfeiture proceeds were "necessary as a budget supplement" for department operations.
Many may remember this case, one of the many Balko reviews:
Tiny Tenaha, Texas, population 1,046, made national news in 2008 after a series of reports alleged that the town's police force was targeting black and Latino motorists along Highway 84, a busy regional artery that connects Houston to Louisiana's casinos, ensuring a reliable harvest of cash-heavy motorists. The Chicago Tribune reported that in just the three years between 2006 and 2008, Tenaha police stopped 140 drivers and asked them to sign waivers agreeing to hand over their cash, cars, jewelry, and other property to avoid arrest and prosecution on drug charges. If the drivers agreed, police took their property and waved them down the highway. If they refused, even innocent motorists faced months of legal hassles and thousands of dollars in attorney fees, usually amounting to far more than the value of the amount seized. One local attorney found court records of 200 cases in which Tenaha police had seized assets from drivers; only 50 were ever criminally charged.
One case seems right out of Minority Report:
On February 4, 2009, Anthony Smelley got his first hearing before an Indiana judge. Smelley's attorney, David Kenninger, filed a motion asking for summary judgment against the county, citing a letter from a Detroit law firm stating that the seized money indeed came from an accident settlement, not a drug transaction. Kenninger also argued that because there were no drugs in Smelley's car, the state had failed to show the required "nexus" between the cash and illegal activity. Putnam County Circuit Court Judge Matthew Headley seemed to agree, hitting Christopher Gambill, who represented Putnam County, with some tough questions. That's when Gambill made an argument that was remarkable even for a forfeiture case.
"You have not alleged that this person was dealing in drugs, right?" Judge Headley said.
"No," Gambill responded. "We alleged this money was being transported for the purpose of being used to be involved in a drug transaction."
Incredibly, Gambill was arguing that the county could seize Smelley's money for a crime that hadn't yet been committed. Asked in a phone interview to clarify, Gambill stands by the general principle. "I can't respond specifically to that case," he says, "but yes, under the state forfeiture statute, we can seize money if we can show that it was intended for use in a drug transaction at a later date."