Random Listicle: Five items seized through civil forfeiture

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by Jordan Green

1. Flat-screen TVs cash and cars

The lede of Shaila Dewan’s Nov. 9 story about civil asset forfeiture in the New York Times sounds like street knowledge about how to fence stolen goods: “Don’t bother with jewelry (too hard to dispose of) and computers (‘everybody’s got one already’), the experts counseled. Do go after flat-screen TVs, cash and cars. Especially nice cars.”

2. Political expediency

Civil asset forfeiture, a process by which law-enforcement officials seize property from people on the suspicion that it’s connected with criminal activity and then use the proceeds to pay for salaries, equipment and other perks — without obtaining convictions or even filing criminal charges — is under increasing scrutiny around the country. For cash-strapped law-enforcement agencies, it’s a win-win: The police get additional resources without having to go hat in hand to taxpayers. For citizens and civil liberties, maybe not so much.

3. The Mercedes

Daiwan’s article suggests a risk that maximizing profits might outweigh the pursuit of justice. A video posted with the article showing Harry S. Connelly, a city attorney for Las Cruces, NM, speaking at a continuing education seminar for local prosecutors and law enforcement, illustrates the point. “This guy drives up in a 2008 Mercedes, brand new, just so beautiful, the cops were undercover and it was, ‘Ah!’ And he gets out and he’s just reeking of alcohol. And it’s, ‘Oh, my God, we can hardly wait.’”

4. Housing

Perhaps the most notorious case, chronicled by CNN on Sept. 8, involves a Philadelphia couple who lost their house after their 22-year-old son was caught with a $40 bag of heroin. The police contended that Christos and Markella Sourovelis’ son, Yianni had been selling drugs out of the house. The couple said they had no idea about their son’s involvement with drugs. A month and a half after the arrest, the police came back, the CNN article reports — “this time to seize their house, forcing the Sourovelises and their children out on the street that day.” The couple said the police came with someone from the electric company to turn off the power, and started locking the doors with screws. (Incidentally, the same story states that North Carolina is one of the rare states where property can be forfeited only if the property owner is actually convicted of a crime.)

5. Cell phones, laptops and cash

A story in Monday’s Washington Post details the strange story of two poker players who were traveling through Iowa when state troopers pulled them over for a bogus traffic violation, searched their car without a warrant, detained them, confiscated cell phones, laptops and more than $100,000 in cash, and then sent them on their way. The story is intriguing on a number of other levels, involving probable cause, a training firm that instructs law enforcement on effective “highway interdiction” and the motorists’ apparent actual involvement in criminal activity.