Chuck Canterbury, the president of the Fraternal Order of Police, has been given an editorial megaphone over at the Daily Caller. Canterbury's using this platform to defend the pretty much indefensible: civil asset forfeiture.
Colloquially known as "cops going shopping for things they want," asset forfeiture supposedly is used to take funds and property away from criminal organizations. In reality, it's become an easy way for law enforcement to take the property of others without having to put much effort into justifying the seizures. In most states, convictions are not required, meaning supposed criminal suspects are free to go… but their property isn't.
Canterbury, who previously aired his grievances nationally over director Quentin Tarantino's participation in an anti-police brutality rally, opens up this piece by trying to equate factual reporting with current hot button topic "fake news."
Amidst the current national furor against “fake news” is another, more pervasive issue of creating “fake issues” like the myth of policing for profit. There’s been widespread discussion about the need to end the Federal equitable sharing program because a journalist or columnist writes a sympathetic piece describing a case in which the system may not have functioned as intended.
Canterbury admits the "system" doesn't always "function as intended" (although many could argue these cases illustrate the system working exactly as intended), but argues that every report about a questionable seizure is the equivalent of fake news. Innocent people being deprived of their property by profit-focused law enforcement agencies is a "fake issue" -- something that apparently wouldn't be covered by a more responsible press.
As is the case any time law enforcement agencies feel compelled to defend their most questionable actions, Canterbury places the blame on the media:
At a time when the number of officers is declining, federal assistance to state and local agencies is evaporating and deliberate attacks on law enforcement officers are rising, how can this issue be a law enforcement priority? Why are anecdotal accounts in the media suddenly making this a priority in the editorial pages of some newspapers?
Oddly, Canterbury views reports backed by court documents and judicial orders as "anecdotal." This may be because asset forfeiture doesn't have much to do with anything normal people consider to be "facts" or "evidence." Very little beyond the anecdotal is needed to permanently separate citizens from their property, as Fault Lines' David Meyer Lindenberg points out:
Once the feds had made their showing of probable cause, the burden, then as now, shifted to the claimant to prove his property wasn’t the proceeds or instrumentality of a crime. Needless to say, that requires him to prove a negative. Even better, while the government only had to show probable cause, the claimant, in proving his negative, had to prove it by a higher standard: a preponderance of the evidence.
There were countless other inequities, like the fact that the government could use hearsay as evidence while claimants couldn’t. All in all, the deck was about as stacked against property owners as one could imagine.
That was how forfeiture worked back in the 1980s, before reform efforts were put into place. Pretty much indistinguishable from now, after the passage of the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act (CAFRA) in 2000 -- something Canterbury claims shows he's on the right side of history with his pro-forfeiture arguments.
The FOP does not disagree that there is a need for civil asset forfeiture reform. In fact, we worked very closely with Senator Jeff Sessions on this issue going back to the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act (CAFRA) of 2000.
The law enforcement community came together to make the necessary changes to the program to ensure due process protections while preserving equitable sharing as a critical law enforcement tool.
This is Canterbury's bid for being perceived as then good guy heading a union full of officers and agencies being unfairly misrepresented by media clickbaitery. Lindenberg points out that pretty much the entirety of the "reform" in the 2000 reform act was the placing of the word "reform" in the bill's title.
Before CAFRA, “fungible” property could be forfeited even if the government couldn’t tie the assets before it to a crime, but only in money laundering cases. CAFRA extended that provision to all civil asset forfeiture cases.
CAFRA reinstated the fugitive disentitlement doctrine, which banned fugitives in criminal cases from trying to recover their assets.
CAFRA amended 28 U.S.C. § 2461 to authorize criminal forfeiture whenever civil forfeiture was allowed. This let the government seize people’s assets before they were tried on criminal charges, thus potentially depriving them of the ability to fund their defense.
Canterbury worked with Sessions (himself a forfeiture fan who has stated the only thing it does is take stuff from people who've "done nothing more than sell dope their whole lives") to weaken this reform effort. A more serious reform effort never had a chance. This is a list of the concessions given to law enforcement in exchange for giving citizens an incrementally-better chance at recovering wrongfully seized property.
The biggest lie in Canterbury's editorial is also the most expected: that asset forfeiture is actually having an effect on criminal activity.
For over 30 years, the asset forfeiture program has allowed law enforcement to deprive criminals of both the proceeds and tools of crime. The resources provided by the equitable sharing program have allowed agencies to participate in joint task forces to thwart and deter serious criminal activity and terrorism, purchase equipment, provide training upgrade technology, engage their communities, and better protect their officers. It has been remarkably successful.
Sure, that was the theory. In actuality, billions of dollars have flowed into law enforcement agencies with barely any diminishment in the amount of drugs flowing into the country. It may seem like the use of forfeited funds to purchase law enforcement equipment lightens the load on taxpayers but that's only if you don't consider any person whose property has been seized without evidence to not be part of the pool of taxpayers.
Using these funds is also a boon for cash-strapped cities and towns, and they're in no hurry to have to start looking for other revenue streams if this one dries up. So, there's plenty of internal opposition to forfeiture reform efforts as well.
Canterbury keeps going back to the claim he can't back up: that asset forfeiture has done anything else other than enrich the law enforcement agencies participating in it. He wraps up his editorial with the standard cop rhetorical device: our word against yours.
[T]o end a decades-long program which is worth hundreds of millions of dollars to our nation’s communities and has documented success in deterring and fighting crime based on anecdotal media reports is simply not sound public policy.
Unfortunately for Canterbury, his claim of "documented success" is at least as anecdotal as the media reports he appears to feel have turned the nation against this honorable practice of taking money from alleged criminals without going through the process of actually proving any criminal activity took place. But when you're used to separating people from property using little more than hearsay and hunches, I'm sure anything that contradicts your narrative looks like nothing more than hysteria urged on by an irresponsible press.
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