The programs, born in the 1970s to seize ill-gotten gains from drug trafficking, have become unmoored from their original intent of taking the profit out of crime. Police can seize a person’s assets without charging them with a crime and — incredibly — wind up keeping the loot for the department’s financial benefit, an arrangement one might expect in a banana republic, not the United States.
Many victims have done nothing more than carry an amount of cash police find “suspicious.” They included drivers with cash to renovate a house, purchase a used car or buy shrubbery for a landscape business. A traffic violation, or a perceived one, is often used as a pretext for a stop and seizure.
Once money, a car or other valuables are seized, it’s up to individuals to prove that the property was not derived from a crime — a complex task that can mean paying a lawyer to battle local prosecutors or a federal agency. Many people can’t afford to do it. Even when people fight, this guilty-until-proven-innocent system is stacked in the government’s favor.
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