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April 9, 2004 - Forfeiture Endangers American Rights (FEAR)

Asset Forfeiture Abuse Continues

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Despite the reforms of CAFRA, highway "forfeiture traps" are apparently still alive and flourishing in this country!

Today a new FEAR member called and related his story. He was driving across the South with a group of friends on their way to Las Vegas on vacation. They were stopped by cops in Texas for some obscure traffic infraction -- driving in the passing lane, as I understand it. The police searched and found cash money, and seized it. A drug dog was brought and he alerted to the money -- that was the official excuse for seizing it. No one was arrested or even cited for the traffic infraction.

The hapless vacationers stayed in Texas for days fighting the system to try to get the money back. All they got was the "run around." The local authorities kept claiming they were on the verge of giving it back, and then decided instead to turn it over to the Feds for forfeiture under the Federal Adoption* program. (*This program, called "Equitable Sharing" by the Justice Department, allows state and local police to seize property -- even if they couldn't forfeit it under the requirements of their state's forfeiture law. The local agency gets up to 90% of the profits of the federal forfeiture.)

A few years ago these forfeiture traps on interstate highways were getting a lot of media attention. Television news shows such as 20/20 and 60 Minutes aired exposes on forfeiture traps in Volusia County, Florida, and Sulphur, Louisiana.

Local police in these small towns made millions of dollars in profits by trolling the interstate highways and stopping travelers with out of state tags. The police typically claimed some traffic infraction, asked permission to search the car and got it, found no drugs but some cash, then brought in a drug sniffing dog, and after getting it to "alert," seized all the travelers' money.

Because fighting the system from out of state is so expensive, and the procedural hurdles are so treacherous, victims such as these have a hard time defending these kinds of cases. Many lose because they can't afford to keep paying the legal expenses required to win the forfeiture case.

Several victims of the "profile" seizures became our "poster children for forfeiture reform" in the 1990s. Willie Brown and Ethyl Hilton testified before Congress in two different forfeiture reform hearings, and their stories were widely publicized. They were instrumental in getting a forfeiture reform bill passed -- the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 (CAFRA).

The Justice Department reassured the media and the public that the reforms of CAFRA were enough to stop these horror stories from ever occurring again. Believing them, Congress and the media turned deaf ears to our pleas for further forfeiture reform. We have to get their attention back! It's time to start lobbying Congress again.

Let's face it -- CAFRA didn't solve the problems of these highway robberies of interstate travelers. The only reform addressing this problem that survived the Senate amendments was the repeal of the cost bond. (Previously, claimants had to pay the seizing agency 10% of the value of their property in order to have any judicial remedies! We got that repealed -- but how could that ever have been Constitutional?)

The story of this new FEAR member shows the abuses of the federal forfeiture laws were not fixed by CAFRA.

Now is the time to resume our efforts to reform or repeal these forfeiture laws. We need hard data to show the problems that we documented before CAFRA was passed are still going on today. If you or anyone you know has been a recent victim of forfeitures that seem unconstitutional -- particularly those involving apparently racially discriminatory stops "profiling," dog sniffs, or "drug courier profiles" at airports -- please email us. Or better yet -- fill out our Forfeiture Victim Questionnaire.

For more about Asset Forfeiture, visit Forfeiture Endangers American Rights (FEAR)

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