I know you're already mad about various injustices, but when you read Sarah Stillman’s recent New Yorker article, “Taken,” your blood will boil. It’s about the laws and practices – developed over the last 15-20 years as part of the "war on drugs" and the general encroachment of police-state tactics – regarding what is called “civil forfeiture.” And it’s about a lot more than that.
[Do you hear the echoes in how suspicion of terrorism becomes terrorism itself? In how I don’t have to prove American citizens Awlaki, father and son, are “terrorists” (whatever that is) before drone-killing them, because my suspicion that they might be is good enough? (We won’t even get into how suspicion=guilt regarding other little stuff, like, oh, chemical weapons.) Do you see how years of putting up with pre-crime tactics for the “war on drugs” has been training in compliance for the more radical presumptive-guilt tactics of the “war on terror”? Constantly selling “war”-inflected frameworks of legal exceptionalism, the state has used various opportunistic bogeymen – “communists,” “drug dealers,” “pedophiles,” terrorists” (Who cares about them?) – to lure citizens into accepting a creeping radical authoritarianism. Preemptive forfeiture today, preemptive detention
The insidious wrinkle in all this, which makes civil forfeiture not only creepily authoritarian but also painfully, infuriatingly, predatory, is that state and federal civil-forfeiture laws have allowed the police forces and prosecutors who seize “suspicious” property to keep all of it, and, in many cases, to use it any way they see fit, including personal perks and bonuses. As Stillman points out, we’re talking everything from “Halloween costumes, Doo Dah Parade decorations,…credit-card late fees, [and] poultry-festival supplies,” to “a thousand-dollar donation to a Baptist congregation…. important to [the District Attorney’s] reelection,“ to “a twenty-one-thousand-dollar drug-prevention beach party,” to “a city marshal’s ten-thousand-dollar personal bonus” and another officer’s “total of forty thousand dollars in bonuses.” Stillman reports: “In Hunt County, Texas, I found officers scoring personal bonuses of up to twenty-six thousand dollars a year, straight from the forfeiture fund. In Titus County, forfeiture pays the assistant district attorney’s entire salary.” In other words, the real practice of civil forfeiture has become a lucrative system of “policing for profit,” a system that has literally legalized highway robbery and turned police into pirates.