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By Tom Cushing

And now, for Something REALLY Scary ...

Uploaded: Oct 31, 2014

o A couple and their young sons are traveling the highway, on their way to hike the local wildflowers ? an annual family event. He has cash to buy a used car on their return trip. They are pulled over on a dubious traffic charge, and threatened with loss of their sons unless they sign over the cash.

o A woman who deposits her daily restaurant receipts has her considerable bank savings seized. She has never been in trouble with the law; she is never charged with any wrongdoing.

o A military sergeant, saving for his daughter's education, has his account seized by the government he helped defend. He is charged with no crime. His kid loses a year enrolling in school.

o A retired couple in their 70s, he with pancreatic cancer, loses their paid-for home because their adult son, temporarily resident on the second floor, sold marijuana in a $20 transaction.

Now that your candy has been safely (mostly? Admit it) paid-out in ransom to all those tiny hooligans, you might pause to contemplate these real-life horrors. Did they happen in Putin's Russia? Some failed African warlord-state you never heard-of, or ISIS-infested Iraq? Nope. They happened in Texas, Iowa, Virginia and Philly, respectively, and they could've happened here.

The sterile legal term is 'civil forfeiture,' a phrase that simply doesn't do justice to its injustice. Based on obscure statutes at both the state and federal levels, it allows the government to seize assets on flimsy pretext, without any finding of criminal guilt, or even any charges ever being brought against the owner. Worse, getting the property back is so arduous and expensive that most folks simply give it up. And worst of all, the police departments that conduct those seizures get to keep or share the 'take' with other levels of government; some have come to rely on these seizures to finance their law, ahem, enforcement work.

How is this possible, you might reasonably ask, in the land of free, the home of the brave, the place where you're innocent 'til proven guilty? The answer lies in laws crafted to battle organized crime and/or drug-dealing, and more recently, terrorism. They apparently work pretty well in such arenas, and few citizen tears will be shed for the plight of those particular entrepreneurs if their enterprises become hamstrung by cash seizures.

Trouble is, the seizure laws are not limited to those arenas; indeed, they don't even require that crimes be found, or even charged. Mere officer suspicion, akin to the easily abused notion of 'probable cause' is all that's required. In the Texas case, all that was pled regarding a threatened money-laundering charge was trip origin and destination (Houston and Linden, LA ? 'known' drug delivery sites), and an empty glass pipe in the car's console. And although the statutes are often applied to cash, they can attach cars, boats, bank accounts, jewelry and real estate. They exist in tandem with criminal forfeiture laws ? which Do require a finding of guilt before property is formally transferred to the government for disposition.

California state law is somewhat more restrictive on its face, but local police can partner with US agencies under federal law with fewer restrictions ? and with an 80% 'take' of the proceeds. So it was that Anaheim police seized a family-owned office building that housed a state-legal medical marijuana dispensary among its six tenants. No hint of landlord involvement in anything illegal, and both the property and its ongoing income have gone to the 80/20 "profit-sharing" arrangement between the feds and Anaheim PD in an as-yet unresolved case.

California collects about 20% of the national proceeds under the federal cooperation scheme, totaling some $173,000,000 over seven recent years.

Reforms have been attempted in CA ? a bill passed in 2000, only to be vetoed by then-governor Davis. And in 2011, AB 639 was introduced, but never made it out of the legislature. Among other provisions, it sensibly would have required that federal cooperation require a strict interstate (vs. local) element, that many local proceeds go to the state general fund (removing the 'policing for profit' incentive to go around narrower, less profitable state law), and that attorney's fees be allowed to the owner in successful reclamation actions. It does not appear that similar legislation was even introduced in the session just concluded. The outrage continues.

So, when you tuck-in those sleepy trick-or-treaters this evening and prepare yourself for bed, look around your house, and take a moment to ponder your car and those hard-won investments. You only Think you own them.

Further reading:

Sarah Stillman, Taken. New Yorker

Shaila Dewan, NYT Law Lets IRS Seize Accounts, No Crime Required.

David Post, The Too-long arm of the law. Wash Post

Institute for Justice website.

American Civil Liberties Union website.