AFP Photo/Toshifumi Kitamura
Details of a US federal program known as ‘civil asset forfeiture,’ which enables police to seize the property of suspected criminals without having to prove their guilt, are revealed in a series of video seminars obtained by the New York Times.
“A guy drives up in a 2008 Mercedes, brand new,”says Harry Connelly Jr., the city attorney of Las Cruces, New Mexico, in a taped lecture. “Just so beautiful, I mean, the cops were undercover and they were just like ‘Ahhhh.’ And he gets out and he’s just reeking of alcohol. And it’s like, ‘Oh, my goodness, we can hardly wait,’” he says, describing the 2008 seizure of a car made possible by the policy.
Law enforcement officials have been conducting such seminars instructing local officers on the ins and outs of property seizure in continuing-education seminars, some of which have been taped. The videos were brought to the attention of the NYT by the Institute for Justice, a civil liberties public interest firm staunchly opposed to the policy.
In the sessions, officials advise local officers, state troopers, and county deputies to go after suspicious motorists more aggressively, aiming to seize cash, cars or other goods, according to the paper. Officials share tips and tricks for maximizing profits, dealing with wary judges, and fighting off the objections of indignant owners. In one taped session, Sean D. McMurtry, chief of the forfeiture unit in Mercer County, New Jersey, said that flat screen televisions were “very popular with the police departments.”
Civil asset forfeiture, called “legalized robbery by law enforcement” by Ezekiel Edwards, of the Criminal Law Reform Project, on HBO’s Last Week Tonight, allows the government to confiscate property without having to secure a conviction, obtain a warrant, or issue charges beforehand. The policy gives police the opportunity to circumvent state laws on property seizure if they partner up with federal forces. So long as they collaborate with federal agencies, all the officers need to snatch suspects’ property is a hunch that they have ties to criminal activity.
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