“Something Obscene About Civil Asset Forfeitures”: A Practice That Incentivizes Police To Steal From Law Abiding Citizens
You get pulled over by police. Maybe they claim you were seven miles over the speed limit, maybe they say you made an improper lane change. Doesn’t matter, because the traffic stop is only a pretext.
Using that pretext, they ask permission to search your car for drugs. You give permission and they search. Or you decline permission, but that doesn’t matter, either. They make you wait until a drug-sniffing canine can be brought to the scene, then tell you the dog has indicated the presence of drugs — and search anyway.
Now imagine that no drugs are turned up, but they do find a large sum of money and demand that you account for it. Maybe you’re going to a car auction out of state, maybe the money is a loan from a relative, maybe you just don’t trust banks. This is yet something else that doesn’t matter. The police insist that this is drug money. They scratch out a handwritten receipt and, without a warrant, without an arrest, maybe without even giving you a ticket for the alleged traffic violation, they drive away with your money.
You want it back? Hire a lawyer. You might be successful — in a year or two. Or you might not. Either way, it’s going to cost you and if the amount in question is too small, getting an attorney might not be practical. Would you spend $5,000 to (maybe) recover $4,000? No. So the police keep your money — your money — and you swallow the loss.
You find that scenario far-fetched? It’s not fetched nearly as far as you think.
Just since 2008, there have been over 55,000 “civil asset forfeitures” for cash and property totaling $3 billion. And for every actual drug dealer thus ensnared, there seems to be someone like Mandrel Stuart, who told the Washington Post last year that he lost his business when police seized $17,550, leaving him no operating funds. Or like Ming Tong Liu, who lost an opportunity to buy a restaurant when police took $75,000 he had raised from relatives for the purchase.
So one is heartened at last week’s announcement from Attorney General Eric Holder that the federal government is largely abandoning the practice.
The civil asset forfeiture has been a weapon in the so-called “War on Drugs” since the Nixon years. Initially conceived as a way to hit big drug cartels in the wallet, it has metastasized into a Kafkaesque nightmare for thousands of ordinary Americans. Indeed, the Post reports the seizures have more than doubled under President Obama.
Now the administration is pulling back. Not that Holder’s announcement ends the practice completely — state and local governments are free to continue it on their own. What ends, or at least is sharply curtailed, is federal involvement, i.e., a program called “equitable sharing,” under which seized property was “adopted” by the feds, meaning the case was handed off to Washington, which took 20 percent off the top, the rest going into the local treasury.
Ask your local law enforcement officials if they will be following Holder’s lead. And if not, why not? Because — and this should go without saying — in a nation with a constitutional guarantee against “unreasonable searches and seizures” there is something obscene about a practice that incentivizes police to, in essence, steal money from law-abiding citizens and leaves said citizens no reasonable recourse for getting it back.
Yet, this is precisely what has gone on for years without notice, much less a peep of protest, from we, the people — proving yet again that we the people will countenance great violence to our basic freedoms in the name of expedience. The insult compounding the injury? The expedience didn’t even work and has had no discernible impact on the use of illegal narcotics. To the contrary that usage has thrived under the “War on Drugs.”
Sadly, the Constitution has done less well.
By: Leonard Pitts, Jr., Columnist For The Miami Herald; The National Memo, January 21, 2015
“Common Victims”: Movements For Racial Justice And Economic Justice Could Converge To Form A Powerhouse For Change
What happens to a dream deferred?
Maybe it just sags like a heavy load. Or does it explode?
That was the poet Langston Hughes, in 1951. In that year, more than half a century ago, the most basic dreams of African Americans were deferred. Segregation was mandatory in the old South. Discrimination was legal everywhere in America, whether in housing, education, or employment. Blacks were not just separated, but isolated, marginalized, restricted to the worst jobs and most dilapidated neighborhoods, the most dismal schools.
For many, the racism just sagged, like a heavy load. It destroyed hope that hard work would be rewarded. The deferred dreams of that era seldom produced explosions, because the state had a very efficient system of terror. Blacks who resisted were likely to be lynched, jailed, or otherwise destroyed.
It is a testament to sheer grit, tenacity and courage that large numbers of blacks managed to get educations, raise families, start businesses, and enter professions at all—and demand inclusion in civic life.
The next 20 years were almost miraculous. From the small beginnings of local bus boycotts and sit-ins came the transformation of civil rights laws, finally giving African Americans full civic and legal equality, a hundred years after Lincoln.
The progress of the 1960s reflected a combination of the courage of the civil rights movements, the alliance with decent whites, and the leadership of an accidental president. Lyndon Johnson was able to prick the conscience of just enough of white America, to cajole and pressure just enough legislators, and to make a startling alliance between the White House and the radicals in the streets.
If you have never read or watched LBJ’s “We Shall Overcome” speech, you have missed a key moment in American history.
It helped that the economy was booming, so that economic progress for blacks did not equate to explicit sacrifices for whites (though whites did have to give up their role as a privileged caste). It helped that there were still liberal Republicans in that era, without whom none of the great civil rights laws could have passed.
So here we are, approaching Christmas 2014. Racism still taints the American dream. And unlike, say, in 1964 when there was a sense of a movement on the march with history on its side, it is hard to summon up optimism.
It is one thing when the government decrees that blacks can’t vote, can’t patronize restaurants, can’t apply for good jobs. That sort of racism shames everyone.
But when cops brutalize young black men, and prosecutors wink, and grand juries refuse to indict, that sort of racism is deeper in the social fabric and much harder to explicitly root out. It is encouraging to see outraged citizens on the march again, heartening that the marches includes whites as well as blacks and other groups.
Yet what sort of movement, what sort of policies, what sort of majority support in the country can we imagine that will fix what is broken?
New York Mayor Bill DeBlasio, whose bi-racial son Dante sports an Afro, has spoken of the need to “literally train him, as families have all over this city for decades, in how to take special care in any encounter he has with the police officers who are there to protect him.” That comment provoked outrage from the police.
Sunday, speaking on the ABC News program This Week DeBlasio threaded his way between outrage and support for law enforcement, declaring:
We have to retrain police forces in how to work with communities differently. We have to work on things like body cameras that would provide different level of transparency and accountability. This is something systemic. And we bluntly have to talk about the historic racial dynamics underlie this.
There have, in fact, been moments when thoroughly racist local police departments have been made over to discard their worst racist practices. The Los Angeles Police Department, after decades of strife and civic reform, is better than it once was. But it took a consent agreement with the Justice Department and five years of direct federal supervision.
President Obama, who did manage to summon up some outrage in the Trayvon Martin murder (“If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon”), has been relatively circumspect, appealing both for reform and for order. He is not close to calling for federal supervision of local police.
Obama is no LBJ. And in fairness to Obama, in the absence of stronger public demands, the federal government is not well-positioned to remake local grand juries and police departments.
We have gone utterly backwards since the 1960s, a time when the Justice Department and the courts vigorously interceded to protect the right to vote. Now, the right to vote is being taken away and rightwing courts are tying the Justice Department’s hands.
We need a broad movement once again, to force government’s hand. As Dr. King appreciated in the last year of his life, it needs to be a movement for economic justice as well as civil rights, a multi-racial movement. Only when there is common appreciation that whites and blacks are common victims of an economic system that delivers all the gains to the top do we have a prayer of mobilizing the whole nation to demand action.
By: Robert Kuttner, Co-Editor, The American Prospect, December 10, 2014
“A Culture Where Avoidable Force Becomes Inevitable”: Justice Department; Cleveland Police Use ‘Unnecessary’ Force
Cleveland police have routinely engaged in “unreasonable and unnecessary” force, including a half-hour police chase involving 100 officers that left two unarmed African-Americans dead when police mistook the car backfiring for gunshots and shot each of them more than 20 times, a Justice Department investigation revealed Thursday.
The probe, part of an ongoing series of “pattern or practice” investigations into the nation’s police departments, also found that Cleveland police often needlessly shot residents, struck them with head blows and subjected them to Taser weapons and chemical spray.
Taken together, the incidents in Ohio’s second-largest city, the Justice Department concluded, have led to a situation where “avoidable force becomes inevitable.”
Attorney General Eric Holder, in announcing the Cleveland findings a day after he opened a separate investigation into the chokehold death of an unarmed black man in New York, recommitted his office to the Obama administration’s Building Community Trust initiative.
The effort is designed to “foster strong, collaborative relationships between local police and communities they protect and serve,” the attorney general said.
In Cleveland, Holder said, the issues of police and community relationships are “complex and the problems longstanding.” But, he said, “we have seen in city after city where we have engaged that meaningful change is possible.”
Faced with the federal probe’s findings, Cleveland police and city officials have signed a statement of principles committing them to mending police-community relations. Holder said the plan will lead to a consent decree that would be “court-enforceable,” with an independent monitor to oversee improvements and ensure that reforms are made.
Similar agreements have been reached after Justice Department investigations into police departments in other communities in states including California, Arizona, New Mexico and Louisiana.
The Cleveland probe was opened after a local newspaper, the Plain Dealer, revealed in May 2011 that six officers accused of brutality had used force on 29 suspects during a two-year period.
By: Richard A. Serrano, The Los Angeles Times; The National Memo, December 4, 2014
“The Scene Of The Crime”: Autopsy Results Aren’t Going To Answer The Essential Question: Why Did Michael Brown Have To Die?
In his account to investigators, Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson said Michael Brown charged him. Specifically, Wilson said Brown struggled for his gun during a scuffle in his police SUV and almost reached the trigger. After blocking his grab for the gun, Wilson fired two shots—hitting Brown in the hand—and fired again when, he says, Brown stopped running, turned around, and took another lunge.
On Wednesday, a new analysis of the official autopsy report—released by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch—seemed to support this account. The newspaper asked two independent experts who aren’t involved in the investigation to review the evidence. The first, St. Louis County Medical Examiner Dr. Michael Graham, says that the report “does support that there was a significant altercation at the car.” And while the report notes the lack of short-range gunpowder burns or stipple around Brown’s hands, Graham says, “Sometimes, when it’s really close, such as within an inch or so, there is no stipple, just smoke.”
One of the experts—Dr. Judy Melinek, a forensic pathologist in San Francisco—was even more certain on the autopsy’s implications. It “supports the fact that this guy is reaching for the gun, if he has gunpowder particulate material in the wound,” she said. “If he had his hand near the gun when it goes off, he’s going for the officer’s gun.” What’s more, she said that the autopsy didn’t support witnesses who claimed Brown was running away. “The wound to the top of Brown’s head would indicate he was falling forward or in a lunging position toward the shooter,” writes the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in a summary of her remarks.
But there’s a problem here. Melinek says she was misconstrued. “I’m not saying that Brown going for the gun is the only explanation. I’m saying the officer said he was going for the gun, and the right thumb wound supports that,” she later told MSNBC. “I have limited information. It could also be consistent with other scenarios. That’s the important thing. That’s why the witnesses need to speak to the grand jury and the grand jury needs to hear all the unbiased testimony and compare those statements to the physical evidence.”
That the autopsy is consistent with Wilson’s account is a godsend for the police officer. And to that end, there’s speculation that the autopsy was leaked as a prelude to news that Wilson would escape an indictment from the grand jury.
At the same time, it’s important to note the extent to which this autopsy agrees with one conducted in August by Dr. Michael Baden, former chief medical examiner for New York City. According to his autopsy, Brown was shot six times, including twice in the head. “This one here looks like his head was bent downward,” he said, referring to the wound at the top of Brown’s head. “It can be because he’s giving up, or because he’s charging forward at the officer.”
And both autopsies fit the opposing accounts from other witnesses. “[Wilson] reached out the window and tried to choke my friend. We were trying to get away, and he tried to pull my friend into the car,” said Dorian Johnson, who was with Brown, saw the whole encounter, and never claimed there wasn’t a fight at the police vehicle. The question, rather, is what precisely happened. Later, we learned of two witnesses who saw the shooting and filmed their near-instant reaction. “He had his f-ckin’ hands up,” said one of the men, echoing other reports.
The Justice Department is conducting its own autopsy, and it’s likely to fit the results of the previous ones. (It has also condemned this leak, calling it “irresponsible and highly troubling.”) Which is to say that—barring new evidence—we’re stuck with the facts we’ve had since August, none of which gives a conclusive answer to the key question in the case: Who started it? And even if it did—and even if Brown was at fault for the whole encounter—we’re still left with the other important question: Why did Wilson keep firing after Brown moved away?
At this point, any answer is tied tightly to your sympathies. Side with Michael Brown and the Ferguson protesters, and you’re likely to think Wilson overreacted or—at worst—actively abused his power. And if you support Darren Wilson, you’re just as likely to see an honest cop just defending himself from a dangerous aggressor.
Put another way, Ferguson is still thick with tension from Brown’s shooting, and if Wilson isn’t indicted, it could explode into a new round of protests. Indeed, it’s possible this is why Gov. Jay Nixon—who received low marks for his initial response—has announced a Ferguson Commission devoted to studying the social and economic conditions that led to the initial August protests. “The commission will be empowered to call on experts to address topics ranging from governance, poverty, education, and law enforcement,” said Nixon. “The commission will also recommend changes to make the region a ‘fairer place for everyone to live.’ ”
It’s a fine goal. But given the anger on the ground, it’s hard to believe that any commission—however well-meaning—could bring normalcy to Ferguson. For that, the people of Ferguson need accountability from the police, and on that score, all signs point to disappointment.
By: Jamelle Bouie, Slate, October 23, 2014
“Part Of A Very Big Problem”: Jim Crow Persists; How Ferguson Case Leaks Revive A Shameful Tradition
On those rare occasions when it makes a real effort to grapple with the raw brutality of Jim Crow, the American mainstream media usually returns to a particular set of images that, by their very nature, are jarring and extraordinary: the burning cross, the hangman’s knot, the Klansman on horseback. This isn’t a bad thing; you can’t understand Jim Crow without understanding the significance of the Klan, for example. But it’s not an entirely good one, either.
The problem with focusing so much on these potent symbols is that it can lead us to a mistaken conclusion: namely, that the only evil of Jim Crow (and U.S. white supremacy in general) was manifested in these menacing, otherworldly forms, rather than in the system’s more humdrum and everyday modes of dehumanization. The problem with the former is easily solved. Today, the burning cross, the noose and the Klansman are all enemies of polite society. But those subtler manifestations of apartheid — the interlocking social networks and political institutions that together worked to disempower black citizens and deny them their rightful place as full members of the community — have proven more difficult to shake.
The proof is all around us, but if you want a more tangible example, the news out of Ferguson, Missouri, is happy to oblige.
After briefly turning the small, hard-luck suburb into the center of the world, the media has as of late been paying much less attention to the story of Michael Brown’s killing, mostly because people on both sides of the controversy have been stuck in an anxious holding pattern, waiting to see if a county grand jury will bring charges against Officer Darren Wilson. Many observers, and seemingly most pro-Brown Ferguson protestors, expect it will not; and many are already positioning themselves to win the war for public opinion that will ensue the moment the charges (or lack thereof) come down.
That’s the tense atmosphere into which the New York Times and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch recently dropped two bombs, both of which cited unnamed government sources saying evidence suggests Wilson’s claim to have shot Brown only after the youth tried to nab his gun — and to have killed Brown only after the wounded and unarmed teenager decided to charge him head-on — is indeed the case, in spite of what multiple eyewitnesses have said. As more than a few people noticed, the leaks all seemed to go in a certain direction (Wilson’s). Rather unnecessarily, the Brown family’s lawyer assured the media that the leaks weren’t coming from them. More necessarily, a forensic pathologist quoted extensively in the Post-Dispatch story said her remarks were taken out of context.
At this point in the story, anyone familiar with the dynamics of American race politics would suspect that like countless racially stratified and unharmonious small-town authorities before it, the establishment in Ferguson was doing its damnedest to quash an embarrassing investigation and protect one of its own. Perhaps aware of the likely widespread nature of that view, former St. Louis County Police Chief Tim Fitch was swiftly thereafter quoted speculating that the leaks weren’t coming from Ferguson authorities, but rather were the result of the Department of Justice’s machinations. Because the feds recognize that it’s “probably very unlikely” that Wilson will be charged, Fitch said, the DOJ was selectively leaking evidence in order to “let people down slowly” before the announcement of no charges being filed came.
If that sounds a bit odd to you — Fitch’s contention that Attorney General Eric Holder had previously decided to “take over the Ferguson Police Department” is a warning sign — you’ve got some prestigious company. Barely more than a day after Fitch made news, the DOJ was quoted in the Los Angeles Times and elsewhere expressing serious unhappiness over the leaks, saying they were “irresponsible and highly troubling” and describing them as “an inappropriate effort to influence public opinion about this case.” Needless to say, Ed Magee, the spokesperson for the county prosecutor’s office, has denied responsibility entirely. “There’s really nothing to investigate,” Magee told the Times. “All we can control is people in our office and the grand jury, and it’s not coming from us or the grand jury.”
As you can probably tell, I’m highly skeptical of the idea that Eric Holder’s DOJ has all along been playing a secret shell game, pretending to enter into the Ferguson maelstrom in order to sideline local authorities it deemed biased and/or incompetent while, behind the scenes, doing everything it could to protect Wilson and discredit Brown. But even if we end up discovering that the Department of Justice was playing both sides, it would make no difference to the bigger, lingering problem Ferguson revealed — the way the legal and political institutions in much of America still treat black American citizens as if they were separate from the rest of the community, a force to be contained, coerced, managed. (In fact, if Fitch is correct, and the DOJ is trying to “let people down slowly,” it would actually strengthen the point.)
More important than these specific leaks, however, is the way that the behavior of officials throughout the power structure of Ferguson have responded to the protestors as if they were a dangerous, alien presence rather than American citizens who have full and equal rights just like the rest. Instead of trying to reach an accord with Michael Brown’s supporters, the Ferguson establishment is trying to preemptively position itself as a victim, hoping it can win the war for public opinion if and when the chaos of this summer reignites. This isn’t because the overwhelmingly white men and women in positions of authority in Ferguson are especially villainous, but rather because Ferguson, like so much of contemporary America, remains very much the town that racist social engineering built, one in which the unspoken assumption is that black people can never be equal members of their own community.
So, to return to my earlier argument about the visuals of Jim Crow, let’s indeed celebrate that the most extravagant symbols of that terrible era — the burning cross, the noose, the Klansman’s hood — are now widely considered to be ugly and taboo. For a country in which, not so long ago, the lynching of black men was considered a source of public entertainment, that’s no small thing. But let’s also keep in mind that in so far as it was a social and political system that fundamentally denied black people membership in the larger community, Jim Crow still persists.
By: Elias Isquith, Salon, October 25, 2014