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← The injustice of "policing for profit" -- and how to end it

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Showing Revision 9 created 05/04/2020 by Erin Gregory.

  1. Picture yourself driving
    down the road tomorrow,
  2. heading somewhere to buy an item
    you found on Craigslist,
  3. perhaps a nice mountain bike
    for 3,000 dollars.
  4. At that price, it's probably
    one of those bikes
  5. with a little electric motor on it --
  6. (Laughter)

  7. maybe some streamers from the handlebars.

  8. (Laughter)

  9. The seller has declared this
    a cash-only deal,

  10. so you have, in the console
    of your car, 3,000 dollars.
  11. Suddenly, you are pulled over.
  12. During the stop, the officer asks,
  13. "Do you have any drugs, weapons
    or large amounts of cash in your car?"
  14. You truthfully answer, "Yes,"
  15. not to the drugs or to the weapons,
  16. but to the cash.
  17. In the blink of an eye,
    you are ordered out of your car.
  18. The officer searches it
    and finds your cash.
  19. On the spot, he seizes it,
  20. and he says he suspects
    it's part of a drug crime.
  21. A few days later,
  22. the local district attorney files
    paperwork to keep your money --
  23. permanently.
  24. And all of this happens
  25. without you ever being charged
    or convicted of any crime.
  26. Now, you might be saying,

  27. "Ah, this would never happen
    in the United States."
  28. (Laughter)

  29. Incidents like this occur
    every day in our country.

  30. It's one of the most significant threats
    to your property rights
  31. most people have never even heard of.
  32. It's called "civil forfeiture."
  33. Most of you are generally aware
    of criminal forfeiture,
  34. although the term itself
    might be a little unfamiliar,
  35. so let's begin with forfeiture.
  36. When we forfeit something,
    we give up that thing,
  37. or we're forced to give it up.
  38. In criminal forfeiture,
  39. someone is charged
    and convicted of a crime,
  40. and therefore, they have to give up
    property related to that crime.
  41. For example, suppose you use your car
    to transport and deal drugs.
  42. You're caught and convicted;
  43. now you have to give up
    or forfeit your car
  44. as part of the sentencing.
  45. That's criminal forfeiture.
  46. But in civil forfeiture,
    no person is charged with a crime --

  47. the property is charged
    and convicted of a crime.
  48. (Laughter)

  49. You heard that correctly:

  50. the government actually convicts
    an inanimate object with a crime.
  51. It's as if that thing itself
    committed the crime.
  52. That's why civil forfeiture cases
    have these really peculiar names,
  53. like, "The United States of America
    v. One 1990 Ford Thunderbird."
  54. (Laughter)

  55. Or "The State of Oklahoma
    v. 53,234 Dollars in Cash."

  56. (Laughter)

  57. Or my personal favorite:

  58. "The United States of America
    v. One Solid Gold Object
  59. in the Form of a Rooster."
  60. (Laughter)

  61. Now, you're thinking:

  62. How does something like this happen?
  63. That's exactly what I said when
    I first learned about civil forfeiture
  64. while on a road trip with my wife.
  65. No, we did not get pulled over.
  66. (Laughter)

  67. I was reading about
    the history of civil forfeiture

  68. as part of my work as a research
    director at the law firm,
  69. and I came across
    one of the cases I just mentioned,
  70. "The United States of America
    v. One 1990 Ford Thunderbird."
  71. In that case, Carol Thomas
    loaned her car to her son.
  72. While in the car, her son committed
    a minor drug crime.
  73. Carol didn't commit any crime,
  74. so law enforcement couldn't
    convict her and take the car,
  75. but they could -- and did --
  76. use civil forfeiture
    to "convict the car" and take it.
  77. Carol was completely innocent,
    but she lost her car nonetheless.
  78. In other words,
  79. she was punished for a crime
    she did not commit.
  80. When I read this, I was gobsmacked.
  81. How could this occur?
  82. How is this even legal?
  83. It turns out, it began in our country
    with maritime law.

  84. Early in our republic, the government
    sought to fight piracy --
  85. yes, actual pirates.
  86. The problem was the government
    often couldn't catch the pirates,
  87. so instead it used civil forfeiture
    to convict the pirates' property
  88. and take it,
  89. and therefore deny the pirates
    their illegal profits.
  90. Of course, the government could've simply
    taken and kept the booty
  91. without necessarily
    using civil forfeiture,
  92. but doing so would have violated
  93. our most basic due process
    and property rights.
  94. Now, the government rarely used
    civil forfeiture until the 1980s

  95. and the war on drugs.
  96. We expanded civil forfeiture law
    to cover drug crimes
  97. and then later, other types of crime.
  98. Canada and the European Union
    adopted similar provisions
  99. so that now all kinds of people
    are ensnared in the forfeiture web,
  100. people like Russ Caswell.
  101. Russ Caswell owned a small budget motel
    in Tewksbury, Massachusetts.

  102. His father built the motel in 1955,
    and Russ took it over in the 1980s.
  103. During the years
    that Russ owned the motel,
  104. from time to time,
    people would rent rooms,
  105. and they would commit drug crimes.
  106. Russ didn't condone the activities --
  107. in fact, whenever he found out about it,
    he would immediately call police.
  108. Russ was entirely innocent of any crime,
  109. but that did not stop the US Department
    of Justice from seizing his motel
  110. simply because other people
    committed crimes there.
  111. But Russ's case was not alone.

  112. Between 1997 and 2016,
  113. the US Department of Justice
    took more than 635,000 properties.
  114. This means each year,
  115. tens of thousands of people
    lose their properties
  116. in cases in which they're never charged
    or convicted of any crime.
  117. And we're not necessarily talking about
    major drug kingpins
  118. or headline-grabbing financial fraudsters
  119. whose cases involve hundreds of thousands
    if not millions of dollars.
  120. Many of these seizures and forfeitures
    involve just everyday people
  121. like Russ Caswell
  122. or you
  123. or me.
  124. But it gets worse.

  125. Are you wondering:
  126. Where does all this cash
    and property end up?
  127. In most places, law enforcement keeps it.
  128. And they use it to buy equipment
  129. or pay for building repairs
  130. or even pay salaries and overtime.
  131. This is a clear conflict of interest.
  132. It creates a perverse profit incentive
    that can distort law enforcement.
  133. And this is a problem that's not lost
    on those in law enforcement, either.
  134. Former chief of police in Rochester,
    Minnesota, Roger Peterson,
  135. described the choice
    that police officers often face.
  136. As he described it:
  137. suppose I'm a police officer,
  138. and I see a drug deal.
  139. Now I face a choice:
  140. Do I go after the buyer
    and remove from the street illegal drugs,
  141. or do I go after the seller
  142. and get cash for my agency to use?
  143. So it's easy to see why
    a police officer might go for the cash.
  144. It was just such a circumstance

  145. that compelled police officers
    in Philadelphia to seize an entire house.
  146. In 2014, Chris and Markela Sourovelis' son
    sold 40 dollars worth of drugs
  147. down the street from their house.
  148. Forty dollars.
  149. The police watched the deal go down.
  150. They could've arrested the buyer
    and confiscated the drugs,
  151. but they didn't.
  152. They could've arrested
    the Sourovelises' son
  153. right there on the street
  154. and grabbed 40 dollars.
  155. But they didn't.
  156. They waited to arrest him at home,
  157. because then they could seize
    their entire house.
  158. The house was worth 350,000 dollars.
  159. That is what I mean
    by a perverse profit incentive.
  160. But the Sourovelises' case was no outlier.

  161. Philadelphia, the "City
    of Brotherly Love,"
  162. the "Athens of America,"
  163. the "Cradle of Liberty,"
    birthplace to the Constitution,
  164. home to the Liberty Bell
    and Independence Hall,
  165. the "City that Loves you Back" --
  166. (Laughter)

  167. that Philadelphia was running
    a forfeiture machine.

  168. Between 2002 and 2016,
  169. Philadelphia took more than 77 million
    dollars through forfeiture,
  170. including 1,200 homes.
  171. Cars, jewelry, electronics --
    all of it they sold,
  172. the proceeds they kept.
  173. And they would have
    kept right on doing it,
  174. had it not been
    for a class-action lawsuit --
  175. our team's class-action lawsuit --
  176. (Applause and cheers)

  177. Thank you.

  178. We forced them to change
    their forfeiture practices

  179. and to compensate victims.
  180. (Applause and cheers)

  181. When our team first began
    researching forfeiture in 2007,

  182. we had no idea how much
    forfeiture revenue there was.
  183. In fact, no one knew.
  184. It wasn't until our groundbreaking study,
    "Policing for Profit,"
  185. that we found federal law
    enforcement agencies have taken in
  186. almost 40 billion dollars --
  187. billion with a B --
  188. since 2001,
  189. more than 80 percent of that
    through civil forfeiture.
  190. Unfortunately, we have no idea
  191. how much state and local
    agencies have taken in,
  192. because in many states,
    they don't have to report it.
  193. So until we reform forfeiture,

  194. we'll never know how much
    forfeiture activity actually occurs
  195. in the United States.
  196. And we desperately need reform.
  197. Legislatures should abolish
    civil forfeiture
  198. and replace it with criminal forfeiture.
  199. And all forfeiture proceeds
    should go to a neutral fund
  200. such as a general fund.
  201. When forfeiture proceeds stop hitting
    law enforcement budgets directly,
  202. that is when we will end
    policing for profit.
  203. (Applause)

  204. Now, as you can imagine,

  205. law enforcement officials
    don't love these recommendations.
  206. (Laughter)

  207. They stand to lose a lot of money,

  208. and they believe civil forfeiture
    is an effective crime-fighting tool.
  209. The trouble is,
  210. it's not.
  211. In June 2019, we released a study
  212. that found forfeiture does not
    improve crime-fighting.
  213. And the report also found
  214. that law enforcement agencies
    pursue more forfeiture money
  215. during economic downturns.
  216. So when city and county budgets are tight,
  217. law enforcement will use forfeiture
    to find the money.
  218. So it's no wonder, then,
  219. that law enforcement officials
    predict a criminal apocalypse --
  220. (Laughter)

  221. if these reforms are adopted.

  222. But some states have
    already implemented them,

  223. and we're pushing for reform
    all across the country,
  224. because until we reform forfeiture,
  225. this is something that could
    happen to any of us.
  226. It can happen in the United States,
  227. it can happen in the United Kingdom,
  228. it can happen in countries
    throughout the European Union
  229. and beyond.
  230. People like you and me
    and the Sourovelises and Russ Caswell,
  231. just doing the everyday stuff of life,
  232. can be caught in a scheme
    we never thought possible.
  233. It is time we end policing for profit
  234. once and for all.
  235. Thank you.

  236. (Applause and cheers)