By Cory Doctorow
“Taken” is a blood-boiling, beautifully written expose on America’s “civil forfeiture” laws by which people who are tangentially related to suspected drug offenses have their assets seized, even when no charges are filed and no guilt is found. The story, which Sarah Stillman wrote for The New Yorker, revolves around the notorious town of Tenaha, TX, a small town on US 59 where a corrupt system allowed cops to pull over people — mostly brown people — and simply take away all their possessions: their cars, their cash, even the gold crosses around their necks. The victims of the scam were threatened with the loss of custody of their children as well as time in jail, and the funds raised by this were used by the local District Attorney for frivolities like popcorn machines, as well as for donations to influential churches that helped elect her to her office.
But the story isn’t limited to one town in Texas. From West Philadelphia — where frail, elderly African-American couples have their homes seized in dawn no-knock raids because their children or even grandchildren are suspected of involvement in drug trafficking — to towns across America, civil forfeiture is a cash-cow and an end-run around the Fourth Amendment, a way for cash-strapped towns and counties to pay for their law-enforcement infrastructure through literal daylight robbery. And it’s a vicious cycle: the more the cops steal from the poor and powerless, the more money they have to hire more cops to commit more theft.
“The eye-opening event was pulling those files,” Guillory told me. One of the first cases that caught his attention was titled State of Texas vs. One Gold Crucifix. The police had confiscated a simple gold cross that a woman wore around her neck after pulling her over for a minor traffic violation. No contraband was reported, no criminal charges were filed, and no traffic ticket was issued. That’s how it went in dozens more cases involving cash, cars, and jewelry. A number of files contained slips of paper of a sort he’d never seen before. These were roadside property waivers, improvised by the district attorney, which threatened criminal charges unless drivers agreed to hand over valuables.
Guillory eventually found the deal threatening to take Jennifer Boatright and Ron Henderson’s children unless the couple signed away their money to Shelby County. “It’s like they were memorializing the fact that they were abdicating their responsibility to fight crime,” Guillory said. “If you believe children are in sufficient danger that they should be removed from their parents—don’t trade that for money!” Usually, police and prosecutors are careful about how they broker such exchanges. But Shelby County officials were so brazen about their swap-meet approach to law enforcement, he says, “they put it in the damn document!”
Patterns began to emerge. Nearly all the targets had been pulled over for routine traffic stops. Many drove rental cars and came from out of state. None appeared to have been issued tickets. And the targets were disproportionately black or Latino. A finding of discrimination could bring judicial scrutiny. “It was a highway-piracy operation,” Guillory said, and, he thought, material for a class-action lawsuit.
The Use and Abuse of Civil Forfeiture [Sarah Stillman/The New Yorker]