News broke earlier this year about a wide-sweeping and complete asset seizure operation undertaken by the FBI and Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) in Los Angeles against private citizens who rented safety deposit boxes from a legitimate business.
The federal government obtained a warrant to search the boxes in the business and seize the contents based on its allegation that the business owner was conspiring with customers to sell illegal drugs, launder money, and hide stolen property.
The FBI and DEA executed a business raid that involved five days of tearing apart hundreds of safety deposit boxes and taking all of the contents. The federal government removed what it claimed to be $82 million in property and moved it to an undisclosed location.
The obvious problem with this entire procedure is that the government seized property owned by people who had not been convicted of a crime and had not even been accused of committing a crime.
The vague and far-reaching civil forfeiture state and federal laws in effect in the U.S. allowed the government to go as far as it has in this case, but some of the innocent citizens affected are fighting back.
Unemployed chef Joseph Ruiz had his life savings seized in the raid. He had stored about $57,000 in cash in his safety deposit box. The government maintained that the only way he could have gotten his hands on that much money was through selling illegal drugs.
The government agreed to return his property only after filing a lawsuit and proving that he owned his cash through legitimate means. Ruiz said that in addition to violating his privacy, the federal government tried to attack his character.
Of the 800 people who had property seized in the operation, 65 in addition to Ruiz have filed documents with a federal court claiming that the searches and seizures were unconstitutional and illegal.
The process used by the government to allege the presence of drugs involved the use of drug-sniffing dogs. That procedure has been challenged as being “worse than a coin flip.”
Investigative journalist and author Radley Balko has said that while dogs can sniff out drugs, they have another part of their breeding and training that compromises the integrity of dog-aided searches. Dogs have an overriding desire to please their handlers and an innate ability to detect cues provided by body language and other human behaviors that lead to false drug confirmations.
Civil forfeiture statutes were initially designed to stop primary organized crime operations by freezing assets used in large-scale criminal operations. As is the case with many laws, the process has taken on a life of its own and leads to reports of more and more government abuse around the country each year.
Forfeiture laws can also provide perverse incentives to law enforcement agencies who can keep the property they seize. Owning certain cars, guns, and almost any amount of cash has become a signal that ordinary citizens can be considered guilty until they prove themselves innocent.