“When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men in a society, over the course of time they create for themselves a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.” – Frederic Bastiat
CIVIL ASSET FORFEITURE
Civil asset forfeiture is an authorized procedure that permits law enforcement officials to seize property they assert was involved in criminal activity. It charges the property itself with involvement in a crime, allowing law enforcement to seize cars, homes, cash, or other valuables without ever having to charge an individual (person) with a crime.
Taken directly from the DEA’s website: “Forfeiture is the government taking of property that has been illegally used or acquired, without compensating the owner. The United States Government uses asset forfeiture to seize and forfeit property from those involved in crime which benefits law enforcement and the public.”
Think about the language used by the DEA for one moment before proceeding: “…which benefits law enforcement.” That means law enforcement can (and will) seize your property for their personal gain.
To get their property back, owners must navigate a costly and time-consuming legal process. Law enforcement agencies and prosecutors want to keep the proceeds, which creates incentive to seize more property, even if little to no evidence exists linking the property to a crime (remember – the government possesses monopoly over violence and with the threat of force and imprisonment, can seize your property for their personal gain – i.e. to their benefit).
Between 2001 and 2014, law enforcement nationwide seized cash and goods worth an estimated $29 billion through civil asset forfeiture.
According to the Washington Post, since 2008; 298 police departments and 210 drug task forces have seized the equivalent of 20% or more of their annual budgets. The WP also found law enforcement took more property from American citizens than burglars did in 2014.
Who is the criminal?
Civil asset forfeitures disproportionately impact poor and minority communities. For example, in Nevada, in 2016, two-thirds of seizures occurred in zip codes with higher-than-average rates of poverty.
In 400 federal cases examined by the WP, where people challenged seizures and received money back, the majority were people of color.
HIGHWAY ROBBERY, UNRESTRAINED
During the past twenty years, the federal government alone seized $36.5 billion in assets from Americans, many of whom were never charged with a crime.
Most of the money seized during this civil process returns to the law-enforcement agency that seized it, providing funds for a variety of needs, including paramilitary equipment, vehicles, travel, and training.
Civil asset forfeiture is a controversial tactic employed by law enforcement, established on the falsehood that property can be a “criminal.”
This practice bypasses the Fourth Amendment's guarantee that Americans are free from unreasonable search and seizure, and it provides a corrupting incentive for police to circumvent the law to supplement their budgets.
Civil asset forfeiture and theft are one in the same.
It poses one of greatest threats to personal property rights our nation faces. Property is being seized regardless of the owner’s guilt or innocence. The burden of proof is not “beyond reasonable doubt,” which makes it easier for law enforcement to seize your property. All law enforcement must prove, based on the preponderance of the evidence, is that your property might be related to a crime, or there is no other likely source for the property other than criminal activity.
Most seizures of cash, as a result of a traffic stop, does not lead to formal criminal charges being filed against the involved party, nonetheless, law enforcement keeps the money (again, for their benefit).
Local police departments sidestep state restrictions on the use of forfeited property through the federal Equitable Sharing Program, under which the Department of Justice adopts a forfeiture and sends 80% of the money back to the agency to spend (as they see fit). This circumvention of the law washes the hands clean of local law enforcement agency heads.
Police departments are required to file reports showing how they spend seized funds, but little to no accountability (oversight) exists if discrepancies are discovered. The agency charged to investigate a purported wrongdoing is the local district attorney’s office, who themselves, receive a portion of the seized funds to supplement their annual budgets.
Why would a local district attorney’s office bite the hand that feeds it?
Police departments have become addicted to utilizing seized funds, and without them, many would not survive today’s economic challenges. The federal Equitable Sharing Program is the catalyst for local law enforcement’s dependency on seized property. The seizures are nothing more than vaguely disguised theft, wrapped in morality.
The DOJ admits it has no oversight of The Equitable Sharing Program, acknowledging they failed to advance methodology to “oversee their seizure operations, or to determine whether seizures benefit criminal investigations or the extent to which they pose potential risks to civil liberties … the risks to civil liberties are particularly significant when seizures that do not relate to a criminal investigation are conducted without a court-issued warrant, the presence of illicit narcotics, or subsequent judicial involvement ...”
The DOJ concedes they have no control over a questionable program (that may violate one’s civil liberties), yet, local law enforcement agencies continue to engage in this practice, unrestrained.
THE DEFENDERS (ROB FROM THE RICH AND GIVE TO THE POOR)
Local law enforcement agencies defend the need for civil asset forfeiture. They argue it plays an important role in saving taxpayers money by supplementing departmental budgets that would otherwise be unable to support the rising costs of travel, training, and the purchase of vehicles, firearms, and other miscellaneous equipment.
One mid-west sheriff went as far as describing law enforcement agencies who participate in civil asset forfeiture as, “Turning our police forces into present-day Robin Hoods,” with expanded highway interdiction. “All of our hometowns are sitting on a tax-liberating gold mine,” he wrote.
Locally, law enforcement groups like the Georgia Sheriffs Association, whose members can make or break local politicians, have opposed restrictions on civil asset forfeiture.
In 1996, the U.S. Supreme Court embraced the notion of property as the “offender.” The case involved a woman named Tina Bennis, whose husband, John, was caught by the Detroit PD having sex with a prostitute in the family car. The authorities declared the car to be a public nuisance and seized it. Tina Bennis, who knew nothing of her husband’s escapades, claimed she shouldn’t lose her half of the car. The US Supreme Court disagreed, 5-4.
Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist based his decision on an early 19th-century precedent involving the Palmyra, a ship commissioned as a privateer by the King of Spain to attack U.S. vessels. A 19th-century court ruled “the thing is here considered as the offender.” The ship would be seized even if the owner was innocent of the privateering.
In 2017, Justice Clarence Thomas, in response to Rehnquist, wrote that the Court “should not tolerate ... harsh and unfair historical practice from the colonial era. These forfeiture operations frequently target the poor and other groups least able to defend their interests.” He added, “Perversely, these same groups are often the most burdened by forfeiture. They are more likely to use cash than alternate forms of payment, like credit cards.”
A year later, while speaking about another civil asset forfeiture case involving a stopped motorist in Indiana, Justice Neil Gorsuch ridiculed the view of Rehnquist, saying during oral argument, “Here we are in 2018 still litigating the incorporation of the Bill of Rights. Really? Come on.”
Justice Sonia Sotomayor, quipped, “If we look at these forfeitures that are occurring today, many of them seem grossly disproportionate to the crimes being charged.”
THE LIBERTARIAN PERSPECTIVE
The libertarian point of view about civil asset forfeiture is simple. Private property should be protected from government overreach, and the DOJ’s incompetent dominance of civil asset forfeiture, nullifies the effectiveness of state forfeiture-law reform.
The law that earmarked civil asset forfeiture funds for law enforcement passed with bipartisan support during the height of America’s declared war on drugs (by and large, an abysmal human rights violation, in/of itself).
One senator influential in passing the law was Joe Biden.
Before his death, Rep. Henry Hyde spoke about the process of civil asset forfeiture, saying the practice, “Has allowed police to view all of America as some giant national K-Mart, where prices are not just lower but nonexistent — a sort of law-enforcement pick-’n-don’t-pay. Forfeiture should be a crime-fighting weapon, not a money-making machine for law enforcement.”
In 2014, Sen. Rand Paul, and Sen. Charles Grassley, sponsored civil asset forfeiture reform legislation, but Democrats didn’t show up for the hearings.
The legislation went nowhere.
HOLDER v. SESSIONS
Attorney General Eric Holder reformed The Equitable Sharing Program in 2015 to require criminal charges or warrants before federal adoptions of forfeited property could move forward.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions, reversed Holder. Sessions said, “Our law-enforcement partners will tell you, and, as President Trump knows well, asset forfeitures is a key tool that helps law enforcement defund organized crime, take back ill-gotten gains and prevent new crimes from being committed, and it weakens the criminals and the cartels.”
OCGA 16-13-49 (CIVIL ASSET FORFEITURE)
According to Georgia Law 16-13-49:
“Proceeds received may be used for any official law enforcement purpose except for the payment of salaries or rewards to law enforcement personnel, at the discretion of the chief officer of the local law enforcement agency, or may be used to fund victim-witness assistance programs or a state law enforcement museum. Such property shall not be used to supplant any other local, state, or federal funds appropriated for staff or operations.”
“The local governing authority shall expend any remaining proceeds for any law enforcement purpose; for the representation of indigents in criminal cases; for drug treatment, rehabilitation, prevention, or education or any other program which responds to problems created by drug or substance abuse; for use as matching funds for grant programs related to drug treatment or prevention; to fund victim-witness assistance programs; or for any combination of the foregoing.”
COVINGTON POLICE DEPARTMENT
The Covington Police Department participates in civil asset forfeiture on both state and federal levels. On the state level (local), CPD works in conjunction with the Newton County District Attorney’s Office to seize property. On the federal level, CPD assigns at least two of its officers to a DEA task force in Atlanta for the sole purpose of civil asset forfeiture. Those officers work in conjunction with the US Attorney’s Office (Northern District - GA), to seize property.
All seized funds are ultimately sent back to CPD.
Since 1997, CPD has been led by Chief Stacey Cotton.
COVINGTON, GA – CRIME STATS – 2016 (WITHIN THE CITY LIMITS)
- The population was 13,916 (majority, non-white)
- 25% lived in poverty
- 17% had no health insurance
- Murders – 1
- Rapes – 1
- Robberies – 24
- Aggravated Assault – 35
- Violent Crimes – 61
- Burglaries – 138
- Thefts – 555
- Entering Autos – 176
- Auto Thefts – 42
- Property Crimes – 911
- Violent crime increased from the year before by 23%
COVINGTON, GA – CRIME STATS – 2018 (WITHIN THE CITY LIMITS)
- The population was 14,044 (majority, non-white)
- 30% lived in poverty
- 15% had no health insurance
- Murders – 0
- Rapes – 7
- Robberies – 16
- Aggravated Assault – 28
- Violent Crimes – 51
- Burglaries – 77
- Thefts – 487
- Entering Autos – 115
- Auto Thefts – 63
- Property Crimes – 627
- Violent crime increased from the year before by 3.6%
CPD – CIVIL ASSET FORFEITURE – STATS – 2016
- Sworn officers – 59
- Supervisors - 18
- Seized state funds – expenditure - $20,270
- Seized state funds – end of year balance – cash on hand - $20,221
- Seized federal funds – expenditure - $285,527
- Seized federal funds – end of year balance – cash on hand - $290,750
- Seized funds spent – training - $35,481
- Seized funds spent – travel - $30,567
- Seized funds spent – awards - $3,525
- Seized funds spent – equipment - $19,273
- Seized funds spent – meals during meetings - $10,471
- Seized funds spent – general supplies - $1,941
- Seized funds spent – gun range supplies - $521
- Seized funds spent – ammunition - $52,465
- Seized funds spent – conferences - $22,623
- Seized funds spent – advertisements - $4,558
- Seized funds spent – special investigations unit - $32,784 (a now disbanded street-level narcotics unit comprised of CPD officers and NCSO deputies)
- Seized funds spent – LE dues/associations - $2,381
(These numbers were rounded to the nearest dollar)
CPD – CIVIL ASSET FORFEITURE – STATS – 2018
- Sworn officers – 66
- Supervisors - 18
- Seized state funds – expenditure - $9,603
- Seized state funds – end of year balance – cash on hand - $1,942
- Seized federal funds – expenditure - $101,922
- Seized federal funds – end of year balance – cash on hand - $214,669
- Seized funds spent – training - $16,630
- Seized funds spent – travel - $34,461
- Seized funds spent – awards - $5,612
- Seized funds spent – equipment - $36,948
- Seized funds spent – general supplies - $5,861
- Seized funds spent – investigations/operations - $5,852
- Seized funds spent – contracts - $5,100
(These numbers were rounded to the nearest dollar)
CPD – CIVIL ASSET FORFEITURE – EXPENDITURE – TRAVEL – 2016/2018 (TOTAL)
CPD - 2016/2018 – Combined Total – Travel - $65,028
CPD, CONYERS PD, MONROE PD - CIVIL ASSET FORFEITURE – EXPENDITURE – TRAVEL – 2016/2018 (TOTAL) – FOR COMPARISON
Conyers PD - 2016/2018 – Combined Total – Travel - $18,066
Monroe PD – 2016/2018 – Combined Total – Travel - $15,337
Conyers PD and Monroe PD – 2016/2018 – Combined Total – Travel - $33,403
CPD outspent Conyers PD and Monroe PD combined for – 2016/2018 – in travel by over $31,000
(In 2016, Monroe PD combined their travel/training expenditures into one total – $13,044, it is reflected in these numbers. In 2018, Monroe PD spent no seized funds on travel, but spent $2,293 in seized funds on training, which may incorporate travel. It too, is reflected in these numbers)
GEORGIA (THE COUNTRY IN THE CAUCASUS REGION OF EURASIA)
Cotton has been the chief at CPD for 23 years, and during his tenure, became immersed with the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police (GACP), the Commission of Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA), and the International Association of Chiefs of Police (IACP).
All these organizations require extensive travel, not only throughout the state of Georgia, but across the country and, at times, the world.
Cotton flies himself and various members of his command staff to seminars, conferences, and meetings sponsored by these organizations, to places like Florida, California, Utah, and Canada.
Moreover, Cotton flew members of his command staff to the country of Georgia to instruct international law enforcement officers on principles/practices of American law enforcement. During one such trip, an all-male delegate from CPD, flew to the country and spoke about the importance of women in supervisory roles within law enforcement. There was only one problem. At the time, CPD had no women in supervisory positions. Not one. Even more alarming, some of command staff flown to Georgia were not certified instructors. They were not authorized to teach in the state of Georgia, but Cotton allowed them to fly overseas and teach in the country of Georgia. (These flights overseas have occurred during the past five years and one occurred in 2019.)
Currently, out of 18 supervisors at CPD, only one is female and only one is a person of color. The other 16 are white males.
Cotton manages, on average, 60 personnel and spends (in two years, alone) over $65,000 dollars in travel for a handful of command staff, maybe as little as 10 individuals.
An alarming number from the 2016 stats, shows Cotton spent over $10,000 on food and over $52,000 on ammunition. Who is the CPD at war with?
CPD GUN RANGE
The gun range owned/utilized by the CPD has been in disrepair for nearly a decade. The firearms staff is top notch, one of the best in Georgia, but they can only do so much with what Cotton allows. For a law enforcement agency that touts its international accreditation, the conditions in which CPD officers are required to train are abysmal.
The onsite building used for classroom instruction is half a century old. The HVAC system, like its lone toilet and sink, works periodically.
Dumpsters overflow with trash and there is not adequate cover for training in inclement weather.
Cotton spends over $75,000 on food and travel for his command staff but accepts a sub-standard facility for his entire department to train at.
This is unacceptable and a failure to lead on the part of Cotton.
One cannot help but wonder, how much good could be accomplished with $75,000 going toward the improvement of conditions at the CPD gun range?
It may not address all the issues, but it’s a decent start.
"CE QU'ON VOIT ET CE QU'ON NE VOIT PAS" (THAT WHICH WE SEE AND THAT WHICH WE DO NOT SEE)
In 1850, French economist Frederic Bastiat, penned an essay entitled “Ce qu'on voit et ce qu'on ne voit pas.” The parable seeks to show how opportunity costs, as well as the law of unintended consequences, affect economic activity in ways that are unseen or ignored. It later became known as the broken window fallacy.
In Bastiat’s essay, a child breaks a window. Afterwards, the author reflects:
“Suppose it cost six francs to repair the damage, and you say that the accident brings six francs to the glazier's trade – that it encourages that trade to the amount of six francs – I grant it; I have not a word to say against it; you reason justly. The glazier comes, performs his task, receives his six francs, rubs his hands, and, in his heart, blesses the careless child. All this is that which is seen.”
“But if, on the other hand, you come to the conclusion, as is too often the case, that it is a good thing to break windows, that it causes money to circulate, and that the encouragement of industry in general will be the result of it, you will oblige me to call out, ‘Stop there! Your theory is confined to that which is seen; it takes no account of that which is not seen.’”
“It is not seen that as our shopkeeper has spent six francs upon one thing, he cannot spend them upon another. It is not seen that if he had not had a window to replace, he would, perhaps, have replaced his old shoes, or added another book to his library. In short, he would have employed his six francs in some way, which this accident has prevented.”
Hundreds of thousands of dollars in seized funds are being spent by Cotton (on things that may not be necessary) and there appears to be no oversight from City Hall. The “that which is seen” by officers at CPD.
As a result, those same officers watch their chief and members of his command staff fly across the country, and at times around the world, while being forced to train at a gun range facility in poor order, adversely impacting morale and expanding a divide between officers and supervisors, leading to an “us versus them” mentality. The “that which we do not see” by Cotton and other supervisors at CPD.
ACCOUNTABILITY (THE ABSENCE OF)
Covington City Manager Scott Andrews, along with Mayor Steve Horton, need to be aware about how seized funds are being spent.
They can be contacted by email at: www.cityofcovington.org or by phone at: 770-385-2010.
Cotton can be reached by email at: email@example.com and stacey.cotton@covingtonpolice.
com or by phone at: 770-786-7605.
(The data used in this article was obtained from the Prosecuting Attorney’s Council of Georgia, reported directly by the CPD, Conyers PD, and Monroe PD, in accordance with requirements mandated by law in OCGA 9-16-19. The data is publicly accessible via the Carl Vinson Institute of Government website: www.cvig.uga.edu. Note: If CPD is reimbursed by the State Department - for the cost of sending personnel overseas - it was not annotated in the report filed by CPD to PAC – Georgia.)