Every week, people around the country have developed a ritual. On Sunday evenings, Last Week Tonight host John Oliver digs into a corrupt little corner of the world and spends about 15 minutes patiently and hilariously explaining why it should make right-thinking person explode with rage. Then, on Monday morning, that clip goes more viral than Fox News’ Ebola coverage.
This Sunday was no different. The topic drawing Oliver’s ire is one that’s been vexing civil libertarians for decades.
“Public trust in the police is one of the most vital elements for a civilized society. But, for many Americans, that trust has been undermined by a procedure called civil forfeiture,” Oliver explained. “I know it sounds like a Gwyneth Paltrow euphemism for divorce, but it’s actually even worse.”
Civil asset forfeiture allows police departments to take money and property they believe was obtained through illegal activity and put it right into their own bank accounts. What makes the practice, which has generated over $2.5 billion since 9/11, so outrageous is that police don’t even have to charge people with a crime in order to confiscate their property.
It’s legal because, as Oliver notes:
It’s not you that’s on trial, it’s your stuff. That’s why these cases have historically had eye-catching names, such as—and all of these are real—’United States v. $8,850 in U.S Currency,’ ‘United States v. An Article Consisting of 50,000 Cardboard Boxes More of Less, Each Containing On Pair of Clacker Balls,’ and ‘Unites States of America v. Approximately 64,695 Pounds of Sark Fins.’
The issue is that there’s a lower standard of evidence required for confiscating someone’s property than actually convicting them of a crime. So it’s commonplace for police to let someone off the hook, but hold on to their cash or enormous pile of shark fins. Although, it should be noted, that the shark fin thing may not quite as ridiculous as it initially seems beucase some states, such as California, have bans in place on the possession or sale of shark fins.
Since someone getting their belongings back requires going to court against the government, a time-consuming and expensive process that’s largely decided by the same law enforcement officials who took the property in the first place, the vast majority of people just follow the wisdom of Frozen and simply let it go.
There are essentially no limitations on how forfeiture money is spent, so police departments have incentive to take a much money as possible from civilians and then spend it on whatever their department deems it would be “nice to have.”
For some reason Oliver doesn’t even use the joke, “it’s just not highway robbery, it’s Highway Patrol robbery” for the entire segment. But that’s probably only because his jokes were much better.
Civil asset forfeiture laws have been in the news a lot lately, as the unfolding chaos in Ferguson, Mo., has directed a newfound national attention to a whole spectrum of ways the actions of local police departments can negatively affect the communities they’re supposed to serve. Books about the widespread abuses of asset forfeiture laws, like Radley Balko’s Rise of the Warrior Cop and Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, have recieved a newfound attention as people around the world have searched for resources on how to understand the unrest in the St. Louis suburb.
Last month, the Washington Post, published an in-depth series of articles exposing not only how police departments across the country use the “civil interdiction” as a fundraising mechanism, but also the shadowy network of for-profit firms that enable the practice. The series generated a lot of attention nationally and likely sparked Last Week Tonight‘s own coverage of the issue.
In a column released over the weekend, New York Times media critic David Carr pointed to the high quality and wide reach of the series as an example of how the Post, now under the ownership of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, is finding newfound success.
The attention to asset forfeiture has also had a corollary outside of the media bubble. In July, libertarian Sen. Rand Paul introduced a bill “requiring that the federal government prove its case with clear and convincing evidence before forfeiting seized property.”
Paul’s legislation would also prevent local law enforcement agencies from partnering up with federal ones as a way to get around state laws making it more difficult for them to seize property. A handful of states have enacted bills to curb forfeiture abuses, but, by joining up with the federal government, those laws can be circumvented. In exchange for helping police departments fill their coffers, the feds take a small cut of the proceeds and then give the rest right back.
The bill has yet to make it out of committee, and legislative tracking site GovTrack currently gives it a dismal 1 percent shot at ever making it into law. But maybe the “Oliver bump” may help move things along.
Screencap via Last Week Tonight