The forfeiture scheme
Former U.S. representative Ron Paul of Texas, a Republican from Hurricane Harvey country, was well known for having a sign on his Capitol Hill desk that read: “Don’t steal—the government hates the competition.”
The Nevada Policy Research Institute (NPRI) released a paper Aug. 2 titled “Who Does Civil Asset Forfeiture Target the Most.” To almost no one’s surprise, Las Vegas Metro Police (LVMP) overwhelmingly targets poor minority neighborhoods to seize the property of those who are poor and politically unconnected.
LVMP collected forfeitures worth almost $2 million in 2016. We know this because under a Nevada statute passed in 2015, sponsored by constitutional conservatives like Washoe Republican Sen. Don Gustavson, state law enforcement is required to report both seizures and forfeitures to the legislature.
Washoe County collected about one seventh of what Clark County did and was not included in the study. NPRI collected the addresses and zip codes of the Clark County seizures through public record requests. They discovered that 66 percent of the seizures came from 12 of the 48 zip codes. These 12 zip codes, mostly in North Las Vegas and downtown, had a 42 percent minority population rate compared to a 36 percent average county wide.
Even more troubling, 56 percent of seizures was of cash and property of one thousand dollars or less.
Civil asset forfeiture is sold as a means to rob drug barons of their millions in ill-gotten goods. Yet, here in Nevada, our largest city’s police department is using civil asset forfeiture to rob the poor of their rent money. A wealthy criminal would shrug off a small seizure and consider it just a cost of doing business. But to rob a poor man who is not even convicted of a crime of seven or eight hundred dollars could be life altering. Even if a victim had the funds for an attorney, the retainer would be more money than the amount seized. Most attorneys would not take the case on contingency because the odds of winning are slim, as the burden of proof is on the victim to show his money was not earned in the commission of one of many victimless or petty crimes he could be charged with. Civil asset forfeiture is theft because LVMP operates under the perverse incentive of keeping the money it seizes for itself.
Whatever you think of Michael Brown, the Eric Holder Justice Department discovered that Ferguson, Missouri, and nearby municipalities were extorting money from minorities under color of law through traffic fines and code violations that had no genuine relationship to public safety but were merely cash cows for the government. This practice is all too widespread nationwide.
Another cruel and unusual punishment our justice system applies to the poor is the bail system. We are creating new debtors prisons because the poor often cannot afford bail. In Louisiana, a state judge was caught in a crude extortion scheme with the local bail bondsman, but in most cases it is a more subtle extortion. Holder’s justice department had the backing of the Libertarian Institute for Justice and reform conservatives when it argued that excessive bail that did not take the defendants’ ability to pay into account was unconstitutional. The Sessions Justice Department and President Trump are in favor of asset forfeiture and are not interested in consent agreements with local police. Libertarians and many evangelical conservatives are willing to work with reform-minded Democrats despite the President and Attorney General to restore equality before the law.
The 2019 Nevada Legislature has to rein in civil asset forfeiture. Make it an issue.