SPRINGFIELD – “It’s not the job of a police department to make money – it’s our job to enforce the law.”
I occasionally heard those words grumbled by cops when I was a young police reporter years ago, when the War on Drugs was just beginning.
That’s when state legislatures across the country began arming police with something called civil forfeiture laws.
Civil forfeiture is basically a money grab by government. Under these laws, cops can seize property that they say is being used to commit a crime or was purchased with money they say came from doing something illegal.
The problem: The person doesn’t even have to be convicted of a crime in order for the government to confiscate the property. Instead of seizing the yachts of drug kingpins, too often cops are nabbing cars from little old ladies. Don’t think so? Ask Judy Wiese of Moline. She is a 70-year-old woman who lives on $730 a month.
As first reported by the The Dispatch and Rock Island Argus, she lent her 2009 Jeep Compass to a grandson so he could drive to work. The car was seized by police because the grandson’s driver’s license was revoked. She told the newspaper that her grandson had told her otherwise.
Regardless, Judy hadn’t broken any laws. She was just a grandma helping out a grandson. That was back in August. And this month she still was fighting to get the car back.
It seems that even though she did not commit a crime, she had to go to court and prove that her car was not connected to a crime nor was it the proceeds of crime.
She couldn’t afford a lawyer, struggled to write legal motions and was scolded by a judge for not having something notarized. When her case ended up in the newspaper, a lawyer volunteered his services and her car was returned after being held for months. Most people aren’t so fortunate or so persistent. Unable to afford an attorney, they often just walk away from what is theirs.
Abuses of forfeiture laws have been reported throughout the U.S. The Washington Post recently wrote about a college student who had spent years saving $11,000 for tuition only to have it confiscated in a Cincinnati airport because the cops thought it was suspicious that he was traveling with that much cash. It may not be particularly smart to travel with that much dough, but it isn’t criminal.
Cops and prosecutors have a profit motive because their departments often get to keep the cash and property they seize. And anyone who has ever seen a speed trap in a small town knows revenue can be a powerful incentive for police departments.
Government has an insatiable appetite for money, and civil forfeiture is just one symptom of this pervasive appetite.
Cops need to be enforcing laws, not seizing money and property from law-abiding citizens. Folks ought to be able to keep what they own unless they are convicted of a crime.
That’s not just common sense. It’s basic decency. And it’s an issue the Illinois General Assembly needs to address.
• Scott Reeder is a veteran statehouse reporter and a journalist with Illinois News Network, a project of the Illinois Policy Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.