Suppose you decide to buy a used car from a guy on Craigslist. You’ve found the car you want, and you’re going to buy it outright. It’s only $4,000, and you decide to pay cash because it will be more convenient for both of you. So, on the day of the sale, you get the money and go to purchase the car.
On the way there, you roll through a stop sign. Bad luck—a cop saw you. He pulls you over, and while he’s writing up a ticket, catches a glimpse of your bank envelope in the passenger seat. Suddenly, he asks to search your car. You don’t have anything to hide, so what’s the harm, right?
The next thing you know, the officer is thumbing through your twenties. He grills you on why you’re carrying this much cash. It’s suspicious, he says. A check would have been easier if you’re really just buying a car.
“I’m going to have to confiscate this,” he finally concludes. You immediately protest: “On what charge? Am I being arrested? Can I call my lawyer?”
Nope. You’re not being arrested, and you can’t call your lawyer. In fact, you’re not being charged with any criminal activity.
This is called civil asset forfeiture—and you’re never going to see a dime of that money again.
“Civil asset forfeiture” sounds like some obscure legal thing. It’s not. In fact, it’s probably the biggest threat to private property you’ve never even heard of.
Here’s how it works: Civil asset forfeiture is basically a law which allows a police officer who finds you “suspicious” to just take your stuff.
Once your property has been confiscated, the burden of proof is on you, not the police, to show that you didn’t get it from any criminal activity.Even if you personally are cleared of all charges, that may not matter.As the Philadelphia City Paper reports, “Technically, it’s the property—not its owner—that’s being accused of criminality, which means the property can be subject to forfeiture whether or not its owner is ever convicted of a crime.”
In other words, they don’t have to charge you. They don’t have to present any evidence of illegal activity. In fact, you have no right to a lawyer and won’t get a day in court.In some jurisdictions, you actually have to pay thousands of dollars just to be able to contest the seizure.
And guess what? The police conveniently happen to consider large amounts of cash very suspicious indeed—but not too suspicious to dump it right into their own department coffers.
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