This commentary originally appeared in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram on June 9, 2016.
Motorists are telling tales of roadside shakedowns, but not from masked bandits and not in days gone by. These encounters are with law enforcement — in 2016. They often start over minor traffic violations. But many end with citizens forced to defend themselves, their money seized. They find themselves stuck in a system where the presumption of innocence is tossed aside.
This is a view many hold of civil asset forfeiture. Their beliefs, whether completely accurate or not, undermine public support for law enforcement. Worse, this perception most certainly erodes trust in the civil forfeiture process.
A recent story featured in The Washington Post backs these assertions.
In February, an Oklahoma deputy confiscated $53,234 in cash after stopping Burmese refugee Eh Wah because his left brake light wasn’t working properly. Wah, who currently lives in Dallas, gave “inconsistent stories” during the stop and a police dog was brought to the scene.
After several hours, Wah was eventually sent on his way. He departed with a warning ticket in hand for his light, but deputies kept his cash.
This is a common example of civil forfeiture law in practice.
Deputies didn’t find drugs in his car. Not even a tiny bit of paraphernalia was discovered.
Come to find out, Eh Wah is the manager for a Christian rock band. The cash was earned during a music tour. It was meant for an orphanage in Thailand and a Christian college in Burma. Authorities eventually conceded they were wrong about Wah and the money, but only after a legal battle to prevent law enforcement from claiming the cash as contraband and subject to forfeiture.
Asset forfeiture is big business. The feds seized around $5 billion in 2014. And it is easy money, too. Officials can take away funds by merely alleging they believe the money is somehow connected to criminal activity. Formal charges of a crime are not even required.
Traffic stops, like in Wah’s case, are how many forfeiture cases begin. If an officer stops enough cars he will eventually find a nugget.
But when police spend hours stopping motorists hoping to get lucky, other duties get ignored. Citizens like to know that officers are close by, patrolling their streets, not chasing down trivial violations on the freeway.
Maybe of more concern, traffic stops along busy roadways pose a greater danger to motorists than any minor equipment violation. These unnecessary stops slow traffic, obstruct roadway lanes, block the shoulder, and they put a police officer standing hazardously close to passing cars. Is a broken taillight really worth the lives of both driver and officer?
Drug dealers must be put out of business. In its purest form, asset forfeiture is meant to disincentivize criminals by depriving them of the fruits of their crime, but that form has mutated. Many law enforcement organizations rely heavily on drug funds. But if police actually won the “war on drugs,” those cash lines would be severed. This is a victory many don’t want.
Eh Wah’s story and others like it serve to undermine support for law enforcement. And yet, solutions do exist to rebuild faith. For example, Nebraska made a huge step forward recently, now requiring a criminal conviction before forfeiture is allowed. New Mexico reformed its civil asset forfeiture laws last year.
The role of government is to uphold citizen rights, not take them away. Police leaders and lawmakers should work together to explore ways to regain their focus and fulfill this obligation. A fresh look at civil asset forfeiture law and practice is a solid place to start. In the end it’s really quite simple: if police want public trust, the public must have reason to trust the police.