Civil forfeiture is a procedure that allows law enforcement agencies in the United States to seize property without convicting a person of a crime. The government doesn't even need to charge a person with a crime to seize property under civil forfeiture. The government merely needs to suspect the assets are related to a crime to seize them. The most important (and unfair) aspect of civil forfeiture is the idea that civil forfeiture is an action taken against specific assets, and not against individuals.
Also listen to: Podcast Episode 9: Marijuana and Bitcoin
A person accused of a crime is entitled to an attorney, even if they can't afford one. No such relief exists in a civil forfeiture case, under the logic that a person hasn't been accused of a crime, only assets are accused - and assets aren't entitled to an attorney. The burden of proof is also swapped. Rather than the traditional refrain of "innocent until proven guilty", with civil forfeiture, the government must prove nothing. Instead, the burden of proof is on the owner of the seized assets to prove that the assets were obtained legitimately. The logic is laughable, but the harsh realities for people whose assets are seized under civil forfeiture aren't remotely funny.
The motivation behind local police and federal agencies conducting civil forfeitures is even less funny- if you can believe it. Civil forfeiture is the keystone in what's been known as "policing for profit". When the police seize illegal contraband related to a crime, their only benefit is making their communities safer. When the police seize cash or other liquid assets, their benefit is economic. Under current laws, the agencies that seize assets using civil forfeiture often get to keep most of the seized assets. That information alone makes it very clear why law enforcement agencies like to use civil forfeiture early and often, property rights be damned.
Charles Clarke was carrying $11,000 in cash -his entire life savings- when he arrived at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky Airport on February 17, 2014. According to Clarke, he was concerned that his regional bank didn't have enough branches, and he wouldn't be able to access his money in Florida, his destination.
That money was destined for school tuition, books, and other incidental living expenses every college student faces. The DEA, however, had other plans for that money.
According to court filings, as Clarke was checking his bag, a ticketing agent detected the smell of marijuana and alerted the authorities. Upon searching Clarke and his luggage, the police did not find any illicit drugs or drug paraphernalia. Indeed, the police found nothing incriminating whatsoever. Clarke was questioned by a DEA agent and a local detective, and Clarke admitted to smoking marijuana prior to arriving at the airport. He also acknowledged he was carrying $11,000. The authorities then seized the cash, as well as Clarke's phone and iPad.
Officers allege that when his assets were seized, Clarke fought back, literally. Officers claim that Clarke grabbed the officer who was holding his money. Clarke was charged with assault on a police officer, resisting arrest, and disorderly conduct. Those charges were dropped.
All told, Clarke was never convicted of any crime related to his seized cash. A few months after the seizure, he was able to collect his phone and iPad, but he has yet to recover the cash. Until recently, Clarke reportedly didn't even have a lawyer to help him. Remember, victims of civil forfeiture aren't entitled to any legal aid from the government. Clarke says without that money, his life has been a lot harder (as it would be for almost any college student $11,000 lighter), and he's had to make sacrifices. All because the DEA wanted to enrich themselves.
Charles Clarke is just another victim of the tremendous government over-reach known as civil forfeiture. The $11,000 that the DEA seized from him probably wouldn't set any civil forfeiture records - certainly not for that year or that month, probably not even for that day. Yet, Clarke's story does perfectly demonstrate the egregious violations of basic property rights that are happening every day in the United States.
Bitcoin plays an interesting role in Civil Asset forfeiture. Unlike cash or cars, or even bank accounts, the authorities can't really seize your bitcoins. Do yourself a favor the next time you're thinking about walking around with thousands of dollars in cash. Don't, and bring your bitcoin instead.
Images from Wikimedia and Conservativetribune.