Want a way to make thousands – maybe millions – of dollars fast? What about a new car? Property? Electronics? Well, according to Westmoreland County and the Pennsylvania state government, policing might be the quickest way to get all of that, plus some.
When property is seized in a drug raid in Westmoreland county and many other counties across the nation, all of the property that the police can even remotely connect to a crime can be seized legally – a legal term known as Civil Asset Forfeiture. Money, cars, real estate, and anything else that is seized is put into special fund controlled by the district attorney’s office, and is then distributed to various drug enforcement agencies. Recently, Penn Township got a new car, and neighboring townships got new computer software, and K-9 units.
So what happens to all of these seized goods and property? Under Pennsylvania Commonwealth law, it all goes back into policing. This is an obvious conflict of interests. If police have the power to seize goods and then put them to use themselves, a real incentive to seize as much property as possible exists. Police and local governments seldom have accountability or transparency on how they take and spend the seized property.
This concept especially shows across the state in Philadelphia, where police took in more than $69 million between 2002 and 2013. That total comprises more than 1,200 houses, 3,400 vehicles, $47 million in cash, and various other items, such as electronics and jewelry. According to the Institute for Justice (IJ), “Philadelphia spent none of its forfeiture funds on proactive, community-based anti-drug and crime prevention programs, despite proponents’ claims that forfeiture funds are essential to supporting such efforts.”
Not surprisingly, IJ rated Pennsylvania as a D- state when it comes to Civil Forfeiture Laws, and the PA police have a no incentive not to use Civil Asset Forfeiture at every turn.
But this isn’t the first time the government has seized money and property for its own benefit. In the 18th and 19th centuries, Privateering was a common practice among governments. Governments would give a letter of marque to a person who would then raid mercantile ships of other nations (an enemy, most of time), and send a cut of the spoils back to the government. Privateers would prey upon merchants just to seize their goods for their own benefit. Property rights were completely disregarded, and freedom was thrown out the window.
The concepts are the same; agencies or individuals are given a monopoly on violence with legal protections for the sole purpose of theft, robbery, and self-gain. The privateers then get a portion of the goods, which ends up going back into their operation, all in the name of protecting the state.
The bottom line: Law enforcement agencies in Westmoreland County and beyond should be ashamed that they are finding ways to steal assets at an alarming rate. Civil Asset Forfeiture is modern day privateering. Drugs are just like every other good, and should be treated as such, despite the stigma that surrounds them. Even if one agrees with the drug war, Civil Asset Forfeiture is a clear example of how the war on drugs has been used as a tool to strip people of liberties and due process. The American Civil Liberties Union notes, “For people whose property has been seized through civil asset forfeiture, legally regaining such property is notoriously difficult and expensive, with costs sometimes exceeding the value of the property.”
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