As I briefly mentioned on this blog yesterday, Sunday night’s episode of “The Good Wife” was inspired by an investigative report out of Nashville by Phil Williams of News Channel 5. At issue: police targeting travelers not so much to catch drugs, but rather as a pretext to seize money which the police departments then keep. There is a concern for a conflict of interest in this arrangement, as the officers have a financial incentive to stop, detain, and search people, beyond their normal duty to the law. The investigation in Tennessee suggests the officers were quite literally working to fund the departments or they could be out of jobs. There can be no doubt about the motives of these officers, who stop several times more vehicles travelling one direction than the other. Look at the video, the cops aren’t just asking about contraband, they’re asking drivers (in spanish), if they have a lot of money in the car.
The retort to these concerns is, ‘Why do we care? Only the drug dealers’ money gets taken.’ Unfortunately, it doesn’t always work that way, particularly when the police have a stake in the game. The greatest risk is that mistakes are made and innocent people’s property is taken by the police. There is a legal remedy to fight the seizure, but that can also be expensive. On top of that, the police often target out-of-state vehicles, making the ability to challenge the seizure far more onerous. An innocent person should not have to go to court to try to get their own property back from law enforcement.
Other issues from such procedures are nearly as insidious. Overzealous police are more likely to incorrectly stop and detain innocent people and harass them about going through their stuff. Unsupported detentions for ‘driving while black’ are being supplanted by detentions for driving while hispanic, or just driving south. These truckers (and other drivers) are trying to make a living. The more unchecked discretion the officers have, the more innocent people have to deal with this government intrusion.
Another issue is proportionality. This may not seem like such a big deal, because if I’m arguing proportionality, I’m arguing in defense of someone who is in the wrong at least some degree. However, the amount of seizure should fit the crime. For instance, a guy who deals a little weed shouldn’t lose the life savings he acquired over a legitimate career. An addict with a little bit of dope in his glove box shouldn’t lose a twenty-thousand dollar work truck, which may take away his livelihood. Police are not concerned about this when they are incentivized by their own profit. The latter example was an actual case I worked on.
These problems are not confined to Tennessee. The Florida Weekly did an excellent piece on the situation here in SWFL a couple of years ago. Several of my colleagues were quoted in that story, and every attorney who’s done criminal defense very long has a story about some shady dealings with seizures. On several occasions I have heard of money or other things that have been taken by the police and weren’t all there when we got the receipts. The worst situation I have seen was on a seizure case I handled last year. The cops stopped a guy in a work truck on I-75. There were two people in the vehicle. They found a few thousand dollars in the vehicle and seized it, subsequently initiating a forfeiture proceeding to retain it. My client was not charged with anything. They found no drugs in the car. He was getting ready to move and the money was going to be his rent and deposit. We fought the forfeiture and settled it favorably for my client, but there is no justification for putting him through that hassle. They literally took an innocent citizen’s money.
It’s a shame that we have built into our system incentive for our law enforcement, the people who should be protecting our rights, to detain and harass citizens who aren’t doing anything wrong. We fear wrongful conviction, and rightly so, but even lesser degrees of intrusion run contrary to the principles of our Constitution. Cops would rather err on the side of intrusion, for reasons of police profit: to the extent that those Tennessee cops would rather pursue profits than stop the drugs from being delivered. If you’d like to learn more about the issue, I’d recommend the ‘Policing for Profit’ report that instigated these stories. I don’t know that I’d go as far to end all seizures, but I’ve seen the systems shortcomings enough to have concerns with the way it is practiced. Definitely check out the News Channel 5 story and the Florida Weekly story I’ve linked.
#policeseizure #thegoodwife #badcops