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Confiscating Your Property


In America, we're supposed to be innocent until proven guilty. Life, liberty and property can't be taken from you unless you're convicted of a crime.

Your life and liberty may still be safe, but have you ever gone to a government surplus auction? Consumer reporters like me tell people, correctly, that they are great places to find bargains. People can buy bikes for $10, cars for $500.

But where did the government get that stuff?

Some is abandoned property.

But some I would just call loot. The cops grabbed it.

Zaher El-Ali has repaired and sold cars in Houston for 30 years. One day, he sold a truck to a man on credit. Ali was holding the title to the car until he was paid, but before he got his money the buyer was arrested for drunk driving. The cops then seized Ali's truck and kept it, planning to sell it.

Ali can't believe it

"I own that truck. That truck done nothing."

The police say they can keep it under forfeiture law because the person driving the car that day broke the law. It doesn't matter that the driver wasn't the owner. It's as if the truck committed the crime.

"I have never seen a truck drive," Ali said. I don't think it's the fault of the truck. And they know better."

Something has gone wrong when the police can seize the property of innocent people.

"Under this bizarre legal fiction called civil forfeiture, the government can take your property, including your home, your car, your cash, regardless of whether or not you are convicted of a crime. It's led to horrible abuses," says Scott Bullock of the Institute for Justice, the libertarian law firm.

Bullock suggests the authorities are not just disinterested enforcers of the law.

"One of the main reasons they do this and why they love civil forfeiture is because in Texas and over 40 states and at the federal level, police and prosecutors get to keep all or most of the property that they seize for their own use," he said. "So they can use it to improve their offices, buy better equipment."

Obviously, that creates a big temptation to take stuff .

This is serious, folks. The police can seize your property if they think it was used in a crime. If you want it back, you must prove it was not used criminally. The burden of proof is on you. This reverses a centuries-old safeguard in Anglo-American law against arbitrary government power.

The feds do this, too. In 1986, the Justice Department made $94 million on forfeitures. Today, its forfeiture fund has more than a billion in it.

Radley Balko of Reason magazine keeps an eye on government property grabs: "There are lots of crazy stories about what they do with this money. There's a district attorney's office in Texas that used forfeiture money to buy an office margarita machine. Another district attorney in Texas used forfeiture money to take a junket to Hawaii for a conference."

When the DA was confronted about that, his response was, "A judge signed off on it, so it's OK." But it turned out the judge had gone with him on the junket.

Balko has reported on a case in which police confiscated cash from a man when they found it in his car. "The state's argument was that maybe he didn't get it from selling drugs, but he might use that money to buy drugs at some point in the future. Therefore, we're still allowed to take it from him," Balko said.

Sounds like that Tom Cruise movie "Minority Report," where the police predict future crimes and arrest the "perpetrator."

"When you give people the wrong incentives, people respond accordingly. And so it shouldn't be surprising that they're stretching the definition of law enforcement," Balko said. "But the fundamental point is that you should not have people out there enforcing the laws benefiting directly from them."

Balko is exactly right.

John Stossel is host of "Stossel" on the Fox Business Network. He's the author of "Give Me a Break" and of "Myth, Lies, and Downright Stupidity." To find out more about John Stossel, visit his site at <a href="" <>></a>. To read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at




4 Comments | Post Comment
By this logic, a poor man with a family should be arrested every time he walks past a grocery on the theory that he will at some point take food to feed his family. Ignorant thinking. Wouldn't this make the policeman's job more dangerous if you subject a person to more punishment than the crime is worth. It would make it more possible that violence against the police would be perceived as worth the risk.
Comment: #1
Posted by: Jingles
Wed May 19, 2010 11:42 AM
Wasn't there this little thing somewhere about 'unreasonable search and seizure' in one of those old pieces of parchment in DC?
Fourth amendment to the Constitution should apply...
Comment: #2
Posted by: tomw
Fri May 21, 2010 8:11 AM
You know, I'd like to see those pieces of garbage try to take away my money or property without cause. Junkets to Hawaii would be the least of their worries.
Comment: #3
Posted by: bigkahuna
Sun May 23, 2010 5:11 PM
Reminds me of another story I read a while ago (possibly just an urban legend, but I'll retell it here). Basically, two rich people lived next to each other. One neighbor wanted to buy the other's property (build a tennis court or something). The other neighbor, with absolutely no desire to move, declined the offer. Long story short, the first neighbor accused the other of being a drug dealer, the county seized the property, and the first neighbor bought it at a discount at a county auction. Seemed too impossible to believe at the time, but nothing surprises me anymore. As for John's example, I wonder if the police would have had the audacity to seize a vehicle were a major bank holding the title? I can't imagine local PD would want to be taken to court by BofA or Wells Fargo. However, since this was a single individual citizen, and not a major corporation, the government saw no problem bullying him around. It's just disgusting.--------------------------------- Re: tomw - unfortunately, unreasonable search and seizure has been over-ruled because the municipalities have simply declared their actions to be reasonable by their own definition. "It would be unconstitutional, for example, if we took your property without first bothering to make up a reason to do so. However, since we made up some bogus charges, it's totally reasonable."
Comment: #4
Posted by: Nathan H.
Tue May 25, 2010 11:41 AM
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