The latest target of British comedian John Oliver is US law enforcement, who he accuses of robbing Americans in a perfectly legal process called civil forfeiture.
Since 2001, police have seized $2.5 billion in cash without search warrants or indictments. Whether in cash or in property assets, police can take property that they believe is connected to illegal activity, according to the civil forfeiture law. With murky and inaccessible legal avenues for recovering this property, and the expense of hiring legal counsel, many people just take the loss without a fight.
One man highlighted in Oliver’s piece (which includes a pretty great Law and Order spoof) said he lost thousands of dollars when a policeman confiscated the cash he was carrying to buy a car from an eBay seller in another state, even though there was proof of the purchase deal. Another family had their house seized based on allegations that the family’s 22-year-old son sold $40 worth of heroin from the house.
In some states, such as Tennessee, the police department can keep up to 100% of the seized property. “It’s kinda like pennies from heaven,” one Missouri police chief told his department’s civilian review board in a clip Oliver shows. “It gets you a toy or something that you need. That’s the way we look at it.”
Those toys? In Massachusetts, one department used the seized cash to purchase a zamboni. A district attorney’s office in Texas, was reported to have purchased kegs of beer, Margarita machines, and bottles of Crown Royal for office parties.