ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — A trucker has sued the Drug Enforcement Administration, seeking to get back nearly $24,000 seized by DEA agents earlier this month at a weigh station on U.S. 54 in New Mexico north of El Paso, Texas.
Border Patrol agents searched his truck with drug-sniffing dogs, but found no evidence of illegal substances, the ACLU said.
“The government took Mr. Prieto’s money as surely as if he had been robbed on a street corner at night,” Simonson said. “In fact, being robbed might have been better. At least then the police would have treated him as the victim of a crime instead of as a perpetrator.”
A good overview of the travesty of forfeiture laws can be found here.
Civil asset forfeiture defines a new standard of justice in America; or more precisely, a new standard of injustice. Under civil seizure, property, not an individual is charged with an offense. Even if you are a totally innocent owner, the government can still confiscate your “guilty” property.
If government agents seize your property under civil asset forfeiture, you can forget about being innocent until proven guilty, due process of law, the right to an attorney, or even the right to trial. All of those rights only exist if you are charged with a criminal offense; that is, with an offense which could result in your imprisonment. If you (or your property) are accused of a civil offense (offenses which could not result in your imprisonment), the Supreme Court has ruled that you have no presumption of innocence, no right to an attorney, and no protection from double jeopardy.
Seizure occurs when government takes away your property. Forfeiture is when legal title is permanently transferred to the state. To get seized property returned, you have to fight the full resources of your state or federal government; sometimes both! You have to prove your property’s “innocence” by documenting how you earned every cent used to pay for it. You have to prove that neither you nor any of your family members ever committed an illegal act involving the property.
To get a trial, you have to post a non-refundable “bond” of 10% of the value of your property. You have to pay attorney fees – ranging from $5,000 to over $100,000 – out of your own pocket. Money you pay your attorney is also subject to seizure (either before or after the trial) if the government alleges that those funds were “tainted.” And you may be forced to go through trial after trial, because under civil seizure the Constitutional protection against “double jeopardy” doesn’t apply. Once your property is seized, expect to spend years fighting government agencies and expect to be impoverished by legal fees – with no guarantee of winning – while the government keeps your car, home and bank account.
In fact, in a recent Supreme Court decision (Bennis v. Michigan), the Court said explicitly that innocent owners can be deprived of their property if it’s used to facilitate a crime, even without the owner’s knowledge or consent. That means you can now lose your home or business because of the action of employees, relatives, or guests, over whom you have absolutely no control.