Here's Why The Government Is Filing Lawsuits Against Huge Piles Of Money

A recent Washington Post series on a law that lets police seize your cash or property sheds light on a bizarre kind of lawsuit that doesn’t even list a human or company as a defendant.

Under a federal law known as civil forfeiture, the police can seize your assets if they believe they were obtained through illegal means — even if you haven’t been convicted of a crime.

In order to keep those assets, the US government has to file a civil complaint, which looks something like this: United States of America, Plaintiff v. $US13,630 in United States Currency, Defendant. As Sarah Stillman explained in The New Yorker last year, “civil forfeiture amounts to a lawsuit filed directly against a possession, regardless of its owner’s guilt or innocence.”

Of course, a human being is attached to these cases: the person whose cash or property was seized. In some cases, that might be a drug trafficker whose cash would have gone to fuel the violent drug trade.

In the case of the $US13,630, the person was José Cristobal Guerrero, a North Carolina resident who was stopped in Atlanta in July 2005 while picking up his young relatives to go see family in Mexico. Guerrero, a legal US resident, was carrying several years of savings to pay family members’ bills and buy land in Mexico, as The Washington Post reported.

Like others who want to get their cash back, Guerrero had to go to court to say he was the rightful owner of his own cash. Luckily, the construction firm he worked for helped pay his legal fees. He got his savings back in August 2008, more than three years after the police took it.

Others might not have the wherewithal, or the resources, to wage such a lengthy battle for their own property. Unfortunately for those people, civil forfeitures have been surging in recent years and providing a steady revenue flow for police departments. The amount seized rose to $US4.2 billion in 2012 from $US1.7 billion the year before, Forbes has reported.

The practice recently attracted the attention of the comedian John Oliver. In a popular segment, Oliver suggested officers’ motives for seizing cash might not be pure since the department gets to keep most of that cash.

“The question, ‘do you have cash in the vehicle?’ is surprisingly common in traffic stops,” Oliver said. As one lawyer told the comedian, “It’s really legalized robbery by law enforcement.” Watch the entire segment below:

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