The U.S. is seen as the sanctuary of capitalism, and — as is commonly known — in capitalism, personal property is sacred. This is why the results of journalistic investigation conducted recently by The Washington Post have come as a great shock.
It turns out that the U.S. police, enjoying the rights established as part of the so-called war on drugs, frequently seize property from citizens who later on are not charged with any crime.
In September 2012, Mandrel Stuart, 35, was pulled over by a road patrol in Fairfax, Washington. He was in possession of $17,550, which — as he claimed — he was about to spend on equipment for his restaurant. The policeman did not believe him. He assumed that the money most likely originated from the drugs trade. This is why he seized it. Still, it was gracious of him, as he could have confiscated the car as well, as a probable tool used in the drugs trade.
Stuart has never been charged with a crime. He hired a lawyer to get his money back. The most astonishing turn in the whole story is the fact that the police offered to give him half of the amount back, provided he did not take it to court.
You need to be extremely impertinent or have a peculiar sense of humor to offer such an agreement. Either the money did originate from the drugs trade and then it had to be seized, or it did not, in which case the police had no right to confiscate it. Stubborn Stuart did not accept the agreement, took the case to court and got back the whole amount of $17,550, plus $12,000 to cover the costs of hiring lawyers. However, by that time his restaurant had collapsed, as he didn’t have enough money for the equipment and bills.
Stuart was lucky, as not every judge orders the refund of the lawsuit costs. Matt Lee, 31, who has never been charged with a crime, was not so lucky. He was pulled over on a highway in Nevada. Lee was in possession of $2,500. He explained that he had borrowed the money from his parents; he was on his way to California, where he had been promised a job, and was about to start a new life. The policeman, however, did not believe the passenger had enough luggage. He seized the money as a probable profit from the drugs trade.
Lee filed a complaint in court and he won, but he needed to pay his lawyer $1,269. So he lost half of the sum — which in some way explains why the police offered such a strange agreement in Stuart’s case.
The Washington Post found out that since 2001, the U.S. police have made 62,000 cash seizures resulting in a $2.5 billion haul (the figures refer to people who later were not charged with any crime.) Stuart and Lee are exceptional cases in a way; only every sixth “victim” takes their case to court and tries to get the money back. What is more, in such cases a lawsuit lacks logic, as it is the citizen who needs to prove their innocence, i.e., that their money had nothing to do with criminal activities. The police, to win a case, need to prove there is a high probability that it is quite the contrary. The best part, from the police’s point of view, is the fact that they can keep the money and fuel local police spending. It is later spent on new patrol cars, helicopters, sniper guns, even combat trucks — anything the sheriff dreams of (apart from policemen’s wages.)
“It is just breathtaking to hear what is happening on a grand scale,” said Scott Bullock from the Institute for Justice, which has been appealing for years to change the law on seizures.
In the town of Braselton, Georgia, seizures make up 20 percent of the local police’s budget. In Amarillo, Texas, the policemen must be coffee connoisseurs, because they bought a $637 coffee maker with the money they seized. In Montgomery County, Texas, they purchased a margarita shaker; in Sparkles, Ohio, they hired a clown for $225 to improve community relations.