As everyone knows, this country is seriously divided on far too many issues. The most disappointing consequence of this bitter split is the inability of people on the left, right, and anywhere in between to come together when abundant common ground can be found on crucial matters that affect us all. The outrageous abuse that is civil asset forfeiture by out-of-control police departments is one such example.
The Greenville News in South Carolina has conducted an extensive investigation into the practice in the Palmetto State, and what it has discovered should shock Americans of any political stripe who care about civil liberties. Unfortunately, the newspaper decided to drape its otherwise excellent reporting in the usual tired racial packaging that paints civil asset forfeiture as having a disproportionate impact on black Americans. It’s a shame The News chose not to merely report the facts without all the social justice accouterment, as the findings pack enough of a wallop to spark much-needed widespread outrage.
Impounding the Innocent
“Nearly one-fifth of people who had their assets seized weren’t charged with a related crime,” the paper reports. “Out of more than 4,000 people hit with civil forfeiture over three years, 19 percent were never arrested. They may have left a police encounter without so much as a traffic ticket. But they also left without their cash.” To have your money and personal property seized by law enforcement officials when you are not even charged with a crime goes against everything Americans believe about the rights of a free people.
Even more disturbing, the justice system seems to have weaponized its bureaucratic maze in a transparent effort to dissuade individuals from recovering their possessions. “The entire burden of recovering property is on the citizens, who must prove the goods belong to them and were obtained legally,” The News reports. “Since it’s not a criminal case, an attorney isn’t provided. Citizens are left to figure out a complex court process on their own. Once cases are filed, they have 30 days to respond. Most of the time, they give up.”
South Carolina police seized more than $17 million through the procedure in a three-year period (2014-16) alone, the paper reports. It has always surprised me that the clear conflict of interest for police officers on display here is not pointed out more. As their salaries and pensions are dependent on government revenue, giving police a green light to seize cash and property from civilians on the flimsiest of excuses provides a clear personal motivation totally inappropriate for the people to whom we hand a gun and a badge.
And, astonishingly, police officials are incredibly upfront about the situation. Jarrod Bruder, the executive director of the South Carolina Sheriff’s Association, asks “what is the incentive to go out and make a special effort?” if police are unable to seize cash and property from suspected drug dealers. When exactly did “to protect and serve” morph into an incentive to assure that revenue flows into government coffers via law enforcement actions? The News reports Bruder “frequently lobbies for law enforcement interests” at the state capital. This is obviously one such issue where police officials have a personal interest.
It’s easy to see the ominous end of this self-corrupting path. Police will become more removed from the citizens they serve, and an incredibly unhealthy us vs. them mentality will be further nurtured. Our elitist political class is a sad warning of what we cannot afford our police to become. Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant shamelessly personifies the arrogance of those who suck at the public teat at the expense of the taxpayer in a tweet on this very issue.
When drug dealers have taken over your neighborhood, call a Constitutional scholar and see how that works out for you. https://t.co/SUR4bVZXHA
— Phil Bryant (@PhilBryantMS) January 31, 2019
Here is a sitting governor openly mocking citizens’ concern for their constitutional rights in defense of a loathsome practice that just so happens to lucratively boost the kitty of our already bloated governments. The undisguised disdain that Bryant, a Republican and former deputy sheriff, shows toward the people he is supposed to be working on behalf of is deeply repulsive.
Conservatives correctly have nothing but scorn for leftist Democrats like hapless Rep. Eric Swalwell (D-CA) who push gun control measures meant to protect our “safety” over all other rights. They should have the very same healthy instinctive reaction when Republicans trod upon our rights in the name of a “war on drugs” or some other specious reasoning.
It is heartwarming to see those on the right fight efforts to restore civil asset forfeiture in Mississippi. “Conservatives rightly understand that private property rights are the bedrock of a free society, and the bar must be high for a government to seize property from its citizens and transfer ownership to the state through forfeiture litigation,” reads a letter from a coalition of conservative groups opposed to an attempt by Republican State Rep. Mark Baker to reinstate the practice in the Magnolia State.
It is vital that Americans respect and have pride in local law enforcement officials. But that respect cuts both ways. Police officers of good will must step away from this discreditable procedure and strongly speak out against the abuse of civil rights that is inevitable when policing degenerates into a naked cash grab.
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