A federal court has upheld the right of police to seize and retain funds on debit and credit cards, be they prepaid or otherwise. Adding to the ongoing national conversation about civil asset forfeiture, the case of Eric-Arnaud Benjamin Briere De L’Isle, who was pulled over for a driving infraction and then searched for drugs in Nebraska in 2014, which was appealed to the federal government after Nebraska asserted that the police had the right to seize and keep a large bag full of prepaid cards.
The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the cards have no expectation of privacy because they are used in daily transactions, and therefore do not fall under the 4th amendment, one of the oldest American civil rights protections which forbids the government to perform undue searches and seizures. Many civil libertarians have long argued that the practice of seizing cash and other things not directly illegal is a violation of the amendment, but this view is increasingly gutted by continued activities of local, state, and federal police agencies as well as courts upholding their activities.
It could be that De L’Isle’s case was not the best to present this issue in light of – in his case, there were several cards that did not bear his name, and others still that did not have any requisite personal information attached to them, indicative of some form of fraud. A better case to present this issue on might have involved an innocent party who was still bereft of their money with little or no relief – a common case in the United States anymore, as CCN has previously reported.
The ruling could have an effect on Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, which are not currently considered money at all by the federal government. Stocks and bonds have long been exempt from 4th amendment protections, and therefore someone carrying a Bitcoin wallet on their person may be subject to its legalized theft by the police if they are suspected of various types of crime. Certainly, debit cards and other forms of fiat money have more protection than Bitcoin.
Police have for the last few years had access to devices which allow them to transfer all the funds from a debit card, and the existence of such devices has many concerned about abuse. In many drug-related cases, local agencies are allowed to keep most or all of the funds seized and use it for equipment and other things normally paid for by their local budget, thereby incentivizing such seizures by design.
With police legally able to charge money itself with a crime in cases where the defendant is unwilling or unable to claim possession thereof, and police now able to seize non-cash assets on the fly, the situation is fast approaching a point where cryptographically secured money may be the only way to ensure that seizure is less likely to happen, which could further contribute to the concurrent rise and rise of the Bitcoin price.
Time will tell how long these practices are supported by the federal government, and with Libertarian Party Candidate Gary Johnson representing a viable alternative for disgruntled republicans and democrats, federal policies could see a major shift in the coming years. However, most would not count on as much.
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