Civil forfeiture is a legal procedure that is not discussed often, yet has significant consequences for many Americans.
Civil forfeiture essentially allows law enforcement officials to “take assets from persons suspected of involvement with crime or illegal activity without necessarily charging the owners with wrongdoing.”
The negative ramifications and abuse of this were displayed in Oklahoma, when police officers pulled over Eh Wah, a Burmese refugee, due to a broken tail light. As they searched his vehicle, they found nothing illegal, yet seized the $53,000 they found in cash.
Wah was managing a Christian band that was touring the U.S. in order to “raise funds for a Christian college in Burma and an orphanage in Thailand,” according to the Washington Post.
Specifically, $33,000 came from ticket sales, while the other money came from donations, CD and souvenir sales, and cash for band expenditures.
Wah was arrested and interrogated for hours, after which officers did not charge him and eventually let him go—but without the money.
The Washington Post details exactly why civil forfeiture, though obscure, is so dangerous:
“Under civil forfeiture, the burden of proof is on the property owner to prove their innocence to get their stuff back. This turns the common criminal-law principle on its head: When it comes to civil forfeiture, you are guilty until proven innocent.”
Comedian John Oliver did a segment in 2014 regarding civil forfeiture, helping to bring the alarmingly widespread abuse of this law to light.
Cases such as Wah’s demonstrate the troubling power civil forfeiture laws hand to police officers; reform regarding this issue is undoubtedly necessary.
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