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Police rake in bonanzas from people who have committed no crime

Published: September 11, 2014
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Source: Washington Post

THE POLICE can take your car and everything in it — including the cash you are transporting to buy a used truck, a fixer-upper house or equipment for your restaurant — even if you’re not guilty of any crime. Getting your property back can take months and cost thousands. Sometimes authorities will offer to give those who complain half their money back, which makes little sense if the cash is free from association with a serious crime — or if it isn’t.

If all of that seems like it couldn’t possibly happen in the United States, welcome to the weird legal backroads of civil forfeiture. A Post three-part investigation this week showed that law enforcement officers deploy this extraordinary power across the country, too often against innocent people, with the assistance and encouragement of the federal government.

Civil forfeiture policies are in place to combat drug rings and other organized crime. If law enforcement officials believe that property — cars, homes or, especially, cash — is connected to criminal activity, they can take it. But officers’ pretexts can be shockingly thin: cars that have tinted windows, cars that are too clean, cars that are too dirty, drivers who are too nervous, the presence of energy drinks and so forth. Rightful owners have to hire lawyers and prove that the cash came from legitimate savings and not from a drug smuggler. That takes time and often comes in the form of a settlement in which victims must promise not to sue.

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