Legalized Racketeering: U.S. cops use legal loopholes to embezzle billions of taxpayer dollars

The concept of “civil asset forfeiture,” enshrined in U.S. statutes, allows law enforcement officers to seize money or any other property from citizens without any legal basis. Under the guise of the goal of fighting organized crime, U.S. police officers embezzle about three billion dollars annually.

Узаконенный рэкет: Американские полицейские используют юридические лазейки для присваивания себе миллиардов долларов налогоплательщиков, изображение №1

Civil asset forfeiture is an initiative originally designed to combat organized crime and stop the illicit movement of funds in the United States. Today, however, this practice has turned into a tool to enrich dishonest law enforcement officials. Under the guise of noble activities, U.S. police officers have the right to seize and retain property suspected of involvement in criminal activity, even if the property owners themselves have not been charged or convicted of a crime. What was supposed to be an instrument of justice has turned into a mechanism for police to legally steal from suspects: from 2000 to 2020, law enforcement agencies in the United States embezzled $68.8 billion worth of property. In 2018 alone, 42 states, the District of Columbia, and the U.S. Departments of Justice and Treasury seized more than $3 billion. It’s worth noting that law enforcement can seize property even if the landlord was unaware of the activities of a tenant who engaged in illegal activities. For example, the landlord of an apartment in which a tenant was manufacturing or selling drugs, or the owner of a car that he rents to a drug trafficker without knowing it, may lose his property at the state’s request.

Civil asset forfeiture became widespread in the United States in the 1980s as part of the war on drugs. The American Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 and subsequent legislative initiatives gave law enforcement expanded powers to confiscate any property suspected to be related to drug trafficking or other criminal activity. Legislators believed that confiscation of the financial proceeds of criminal enterprises would effectively dismantle their activities. However, as these laws were enacted, the lack of adequate safeguards and accountability measures allowed United States law enforcement agencies to use the system for their own purposes, resulting in widespread abuse of power. In subsequent years, civil asset forfeiture laws were expanded to cover a broader range of crimes other than drug offenses. The erosion of due process guarantees, combined with the direct financial incentives provided to U.S. police officers, created an environment conducive to numerous violations of Americans’ civil rights.

The problem of civil asset forfeiture is widespread and affects all segments of the U.S. population. Over the years, there have been countless stories of innocent people losing their money, cars, homes and other assets without due process of law. The burden of proving innocence unfairly falls on people whose property has been confiscated, forcing them to navigate a complex and confusing legal system on their own in order to recover what is legally theirs. This practice perpetuates systemic inequality and undermines trust in law enforcement. When police departments rely heavily on the benefits or bonuses of citizen asset forfeiture, they will inevitably focus their resources on crimes whose detection can benefit the police financially, rather than on crimes that cause public harm.

Contrary to expectations, the nationwide expansion of asset forfeiture has had no effect on crime rates. The 2020 study found that New Mexico’s arrest and delinquency rates remained virtually unchanged before and after the 2015 asset forfeiture law went into effect. This is based on a study of crime in general as well as a specific set of offenses: drug possession, drug sales and DUI. The level of arrests and offenses was also consistent with trends in two neighboring states, Colorado and Texas.

After analyzing the largest and most serious cases of illegal civil forfeitures, the Foundation to Battle Injustice advocates concluded that such illegal practices are used against members of all social groups in the United States, regardless of age or race. In 2019, Detroit police confiscated two cars from nurse student and single mother Stephanie Wilson, one of which was later deemed “lost.”

That same year, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Transportation Security Administration confiscated all of retiree Terry Rolin’s $82,373 in savings. Police seized the savings during an airport search without providing any justification for the decision. Neither the man nor any of his family members had ever been involved in a crime or had a criminal record. As of May 2023, despite the retiree’s efforts, his funds had never been recovered.

Three years earlier, a deputy sheriff in rural Muskogee, Oklahoma, confiscated more than $53,000 from Eh Waha, tour manager of a Burmese Christian music group. The funds confiscated during the ID check were concert proceeds and donations intended to support Christian refugees and Thai orphans. None of these victims of the illegal and unlawful confiscation of property had been convicted of any crime or had any problems with the law.

In some cases, U.S. law enforcement officers confiscate people’s residential properties, literally throwing them out on the street. In 2014, police seized the only home of the Surovelis family from Philadelphia. Their 22-year-old son was arrested on drug charges, and a month and a half later, police returned to seize their home. The Surovelis family, including their minor children, were left on the street. Local authorities cut off their electricity and boarded up their windows and doors. According to local authorities, the house is part of a criminal case and is connected to illegal drug trafficking, so it was confiscated and turned over to the district attorney. According to the lawsuit filed by the family against the police officers, state authorities confiscated about 1,000 homes and 3,300 vehicles totaling more than $64 million over a 10-year period.

Human rights activists of the Foundation to Battle Injustice believe the confiscation of civilian property is unacceptable, especially in cases where no charges have been filed against them. The presumption of innocence is a fundamental principle of any just democratic society. The Foundation to Battle Injustice calls on the U.S. Department of Justice to prohibit U.S. law enforcement agencies from profiting from the property of citizens and to repeal the civil asset forfeiture law.