08 Dec Civil Asset Forfeiture Trends on Twitter After Copaganda News Piece
Media outlets have incredible power. But, as any elementary schooler who has watched Spiderman will tell you, “with great power, comes great responsibility.” And when it comes to reporting on law enforcement, media outlets often aren’t so responsible and often misuse their power. It’s hard to imagine a better example of that than a “news” piece involving civil asset forfeiture published yesterday by CBSDFW in Dallas.
Most Americans don’t understand civil asset forfeiture when they see it in the news.
Civil asset forfeiture occurs when the government takes property it suspects someone used in illegal activity. Put more simply, civil asset forfeiture is when police take something they think was involved in a crime. This could be pretty much anything — it could be your money, it could be your car or it could be something else. If police believe someone used the property in a crime, they can take it. That’s it.
When we say that’s it, we mean that’s it. If police want the property, they can take it. There is no court hearing. There is no burden of proof. And there isn’t even a warrant process. The police can, in the most literal sense, just take your stuff. Once they take your stuff, the burden falls on you to try to get it back. And, unless you have the resources (time, money, patience, etc.) to fight to get your stuff back, you’re probably out of luck.
If this sounds unbelievable to you, you’re not alone. Most Americans have no idea that the police can take their property simply because they think it might have been involved in a crime. According to The Washington Post, it’s less than a third of Americans who actually know police can do that. And if you’re thinking that most Americans would be adamantly against this practice, you’re not alone either. According to the CATO Institute, 84% of Americans oppose civil asset forfeiture.
But the practice is still legal, and police seize property without charging anyone with a crime on way-too-frequent basis. According to the Pulitzer Center, law enforcement has taken more than $36 billion from Americans over the past two decades. For police departments and other law-enforcement agencies, these seizures are a net gain because the money goes right back into their budgets.
But, instead of explaining civil asset forfeiture, news outlets publish fluff pieces.
Because so many Americans misunderstand civil asset forfeiture, it’s crucial that news outlets help people understand the concept. This is because, once people understand it, they’ll oppose it — something demonstrated by the 84% opposition rate discussed above. But media outlets all over the country have failed to help Americans understand practice. The most recent example of this failure comes from CBS Dallas/Fort Worth.
Yesterday, CBSDFW published what you can accurately label as a copaganda fluff piece about a police dog. “More Than $100K Seized After K-9 Officer At Dallas Love Field Airport Sniffs Out Bag,” the headline reads. “High praise for a K-9 officer at Dallas Love Field Airport after more than $100,000 was found in a passenger’s luggage,” the article begins. And then it names the dog, “Ballentine,” to make it even more heartwarming.
Most people probably stopped reading right there. Their takeaway? A police dog found $100,000 in a criminal’s bag at an airport, and we’re all safer because of it. But that’s not what happened. The government didn’t charge anyone with a crime. Police didn’t even arrest anyone. Instead, they took $106,829 from a woman at an airport. That’s it.
CBSDFW got ratioed on Twitter, but some comments show it’s still a net gain for police.
Thankfully, CBSDFW faced some pushback on social media. For instance, the Libertarian Party of Texas accused the officers of theft. “This is theft, and you are glorifying it. The passenger was not charged with a crime, the officers stole that money,” it tweeted. “Write the story about the criminal officers, not the dog who helped them.”
Missouri Representative Tony Lovasco had a similar reaction. “It is not a crime to possess $100,000 in cash. It is not a crime to take cash on an airplane. This woman has not been charged with any crime,” he tweeted. “@CBSDFW is writing a puff-piece about a dog aimed at distracting from the fact that government agents literally robbed someone.”
We may well never know whether someone used the cash in criminal activity. But if the woman can’t afford to fight to get the money back in court, the government may well get to keep it no matter what. You can call it theft or robbery like those Twitter users did. But the reality is that it’s simply legal. Police can do this as they see fit — and they take advantage of that largely unfettered authority.
And, because of “news” reports like CBSDFW’s, some Americans are all-in on the practice. One Twitter user, for example, replied that “[i]t is a crime to bring more than 10k cash thru the airport.” As @BadLegalTakes pointed out, it’s not. But as long as police have “news” outlets and some of the public willing to support civil asset forfeiture, private property will always be (literally and figuratively) up for grabs.
There have been proposals to fix this for years, but they need louder public support.
If you’ve read this far, you’re probably (and hopefully) pretty frustrated. But police abuses of civil asset forfeiture and the media endorsement of them aren’t unfixable problems. For years, lawmakers all over the country and from every political persuasion have been proposing reform measures to remedy situations like this.
At the end of last year, outgoing U.S. Representative Justin Amash, a Republican-turned-Libertarian from Michigan, proposed the Civil Asset Forfeiture Elimination Act. As he noted at the time, the history of civil asset forfeiture “is riddled with injustices not because it’s a valid practice that gets misused, but because its central premise is inherently flawed and unconstitutional.”
For Amash, the message was simple: “repeal civil asset forfeiture nationwide.” CBSDFW’s five-sentence piece on Ballentine sends a very different message.