PART 2 of 4
Jon Christian Ryter
March 9, 2011
Most Americans—whether they are victims of overzealous cops on commission, or are guilty of misdemeanors that simply do not merit property forfeiture without due process—are not as lucky as Willie Jones. Forty-nine year old Ethel Hylton certainly wasn't. Her luggage was scratched by a drug-sniffing dog at Houston's Hobby Airport. Agents searched her luggage looking for drugs but found none. Then they strip-searched Ethel. Still, no drugs. But that didn't stop them from seizing the $39,110 in cash they found in the luggage. Even though Hylton was able to prove conclusively that the money came from a recent insurance settlement and her life savings from working as a hotel maid and as janitor in a hospital, that didn't cut any ice. She was never charged with a crime, because the DEA knew she had committed none. But they kept her money because the drug-sniffing dog had detected traces of cocaine on it. With every cent she possessed in the world gone and with absolutely no means to get more, no lawyer would take her case. And, since she was never charged with a crime, she was not entitled to a court appointed attorney. Without the means to fight, Hylton lost her retirement money.
Sam Thach, who was traveling by train from Fullerton, California to Boston was stopped and searched by the DEA after an Amtrak ticket agent fingered him. Thach appeared suspicious to the Amtrak ticket agent for two reasons. First, he paid cash for his ticket. Second, he refused to give the Amtrak agent his phone number. Unfortunately for Thach, the DEA stopped him in Albuquerque, New Mexico and searched him. He was carrying $147,000 in cash in his luggage. He had no drugs on him. Nor was there anything on or about him to suggest he had done, or intended to do, anything illegal. The DEA seized his money. He never got it back.
During the Bush-41 years, Customs Service officials confiscated a small, privately-owned Lear Jet after discovering the plane's owner had made a typographical error on the paperwork he was required to submit to the Federal Aviation Administration before every flight. It was an insignificant error. If it had been caught by the FAA, they would simply have required the plane's owner or pilot to correct the error before starting the flight. But the FAA official doesn't get a 25% bounty on contraband. The Customs official does.
In 1999, Cumberland County, New Jersey sheriff's deputy Carol Thomas received a call that fellow deputies from her own department had just arrested her 17-year old son for selling marijuana to an undercover officer. The Sheriff's Department seized her 1990 Ford Thunderbird which her son had taken—without her knowledge or consent—to make his drug sale. He pleaded guilty to the charge of selling marijuana. The Sheriff's Department proceeded with a civil action entitled State of New Jersey v. One 1990 Ford Thunderbird. The Sheriff—Thomas' boss—went after her car even though there were no drugs found in the vehicle, and they knew Thomas' son had taken the car without his mother's permission. A 7-year veteran of the Sheriff's Department, Thomas quit her job and fought back. She contacted the Institute For Justice which took the case to court for her. In a rare victory, the Institute won and Cumberland County was required to return the title of the car back to Thomas. But again, not everyone's that lucky.
A New Jersey mother's Oldsmobile was forfeited to police after they arrested her son for shoplifting a pair of pants. A New Jersey construction company was shocked when State Police seized all of its construction equipment. It's crime? State officials decided the company was technically ineligible to bid on three municipal projects that the construction company had already completed.
Kathy and Mark Schrama were arrested a few days before Christmas in 1990 in their New Jersey home. Kathy Schrama was charged with taking UPS packages valued at $500 from neighbor's porches. Mark Schrama was charged with receiving stolen goods at his place of residence. Based on nothing more than a simple accusation from a neighbor who identified Kathy Schrama as the person who took the packages, the police seized the Schrama's $150,000 home—including its furnishings, clothes and the Christmas presents for their 10-year old son. Schrama, who was not wearing his eyeglasses when the police forfeiture squad arrived, was not allowed to take them with him. They had also been seized. The forfeiture took place without due process.
On May 18, 1992, an Iowa woman accused of shoplifting a $25 sweater had her $18,000 car—specially equipped for her handicapped daughter —seized as the "getaway vehicle." The State of Iowa sold her car at auction to help defray the "cost" of prosecuting the woman who actually pleaded no contest to the petty theft and paid the fine and approximately $100 in court costs.
Jennifer Leigh Ames became the victim of the DEA's legal thieves while traveling on Amtrak on April 5, 2001. DEA agents thought she looked suspicious. When they asked if they could check through her luggage, she said no. They looked anyway. Inside her luggage they found $640,000 in cash. They found no drugs, nor anything to suggest Ames was up to anything illegal. But, based on the large sum of cash she was carrying, they assumed it had to be illegal and seized it.
Civil forfeiture is the biggest revenue bonanza there is in the States because the State gets to keep 80% of what the seized assets generate at auction. Lawmakers like civil forfeiture because it doesn't cost them any votes on election day (since they assume the people whose assets are seized are criminals who can't, or won't, vote). Civil asset forfeiture is spreading like wildfire across the United States. It has proved to be the best revenue generator since the invention of the printing press even though law enforcement people violate the 4th and 5th Amendments everytime they seize the property of American citizens without due process—regardless of the number of laws legislators pass that give them the authority to do so.
Civil forfeiture is proliferating largely because of technicalities in the law that allows governments—local, county, State and federal—to claim it's suing the item of property that has been seized, and not the owner of the property forfeited. The lawsuits demand only that the seized goods appear in court, and thus, the cases show up on courts' dockets' as: US v Parcel of Land at Buena Vista Ave.; or US v Ten Thousand Dollars in Currency; or US v 87 Blackheath Road; or New Jersey v. One 1990 Ford Thunderbird. Prosecutors, with the help of activist judges in the federal court system have now construed that inanimate objects have legal standing since the actual owners who have unconstitutionally been deprived of their property are technically divorced from that property when it is "forfeited" to the State. Thanks to verbal manipulation by politicians and government lawyers, the law now recognizes parcels of land, houses, construction equipment, motor vehicles, and cold hard cash as "defendants" under the law. As such, these "John Does" are subject to "arrest" when investigating officers believe that the seized property may either have been, or will be, used in the commission of a crime—or that it was purchased with ill-gotten gain.
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Jointly, the 4th and 5th Amendments to the Constitution guarantee all American citizens that neither they nor their property can be seized and detained without due process of law. Collectively, these two amendments state: "The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized...nor be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law, nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation." Because the property of the people belongs to individual citizens respectively or collectively, it is constitutionally conjoined to the rights of that citizen. For part three click below,