Highway Robbery


Posted by Bob Lord

I'm generally not a fan of New Yorker, but this week's issue has a great piece of investigative journalism by Sarah Stillman, Taken, about civil forfeiture in states, cities and small towns. The bottom line is that civil forfeiture laws, which were intended to allow the ill gotten gains of drug kingpins and other high-flying criminals to be put to good use, are being used primarily to rip off ordinary people at traffic stops. Highway robbery by another name.

It's a very lengthy piece, but well worth the read. The policy behind civil forfeiture laws was a recipe for disaster, the results of which have been, well, disastrous. In most cases, the local law enforcement agency has a direct stake in the forfeited property. It's not even uncommon for bonuses to be paid from the proceeds of seized property. Of course, this reduces the financial burden on taxpayers, with the benefit of the reduced cost flowing mostly to wealthy taxpayers. 

And, yes, the article includes a story about Maricopa County, although it appeared to involve the Phoenix police, not Arpaio.

The stories are horrific. In the classic case, a driver is pulled over for some minor traffic violation, at which point the officer searches the vehicle, typically without cause. Then, the driver and passenges are threatened with serious charges, but told if they agree to the forfeiture, the charges won't be made. And because the forfeiture is a civil matter, the public defender is not an option. 

Here's the story of a couple who made the mistake of driving through Tenaha Texas on their way to purchase a used car, and therefore carrying several thousand dollars cash:

Near the city limits, a tall, bull-shouldered officer named Barry Washington pulled them over.

He asked if Henderson knew that he’d been driving in the left lane for more than half a mile without passing.

No, Henderson replied. He said he’d moved into the left lane so that the police car could make its way onto the highway.

Were there any drugs in the car? When Henderson and Boatright said no, the officer asked if he and his partner could search the car.

The officers found the couple’s cash and a marbled-glass pipe that Boatright said was a gift for her sister-in-law, and escorted them across town to the police station. In a corner there, two tables were heaped with jewelry, DVD players, cell phones, and the like. According to the police report, Boatright and Henderson fit the profile of drug couriers: they were driving from Houston, “a known point for distribution of illegal narcotics,” to Linden, “a known place to receive illegal narcotics.” The report describes their children as possible decoys, meant to distract police as the couple breezed down the road, smoking marijuana. (None was found in the car, although Washington claimed to have smelled it.)

The county’s district attorney, a fifty-seven-year-old woman with feathered Charlie’s Angels hair named Lynda K. Russell, arrived an hour later. Russell, who moonlighted locally as a country singer, told Henderson and Boatright that they had two options. They could face felony charges for “money laundering” and “child endangerment,” in which case they would go to jail and their children would be handed over to foster care. Or they could sign over their cash to the city of Tenaha, and get back on the road. “No criminal charges shall be filed,” a waiver she drafted read, “and our children shall not be turned over to CPS,” or Child Protective Services.

“Where are we?” Boatright remembers thinking. “Is this some kind of foreign country, where they’re selling people’s kids off?” Holding her sixteen-month-old on her hip, she broke down in tears.

The story is of course chlling, but what's more chilling is that it was not a one-off event. Here's a story closer to home:

If the war on drugs was an immense boost to forfeiture programs, the post-9/11 era has also seen the practice—and the profits—reach into the domestic war on terror. One of the lesser-known provisions of the Patriot Act was a section overturning several of cafra’s protections for property owners when they are the subject of terror investigations, however preliminary. Local jurisdictions followed suit. Shamoon Yousif, an Iraqi-American grocery-store owner in Maricopa County, Arizona, knows what this can mean, having had the contents of his life seized as “substitute assets” for shoplifting and related crimes initiated by his brother, after an investigation started by the F.B.I. Joint Terrorism Task Force.

A Coptic Christian who left Iraq at the age of nineteen, Shamoon Yousif thought he was living a classic American immigrant story: after years of saving, he managed to open a grocery store, in Mesa, Arizona, and then a second, in a rougher neighborhood. When his wife learned that she had metastatic breast cancer, he asked his brother Sami to take charge of the second store. According to investigators, his brother, who had a gambling habit, took to shelving goods purchased at a steep discount from “boosters,” mostly addicts who shoplifted liquor, cigarettes, and clothing like jeans and sweaters from big-box stores.

Early one morning in May, 2008, police charged into Shamoon’s house, and began the government seizure of most significant items the family owned—Shamoon’s home, his car, his two stores, his bank accounts, the jewelry of his recently deceased wife, his children’s cell phones, and more. The fact that the dirty money in Sami’s store was “co-mingling” with clean money from legitimate sales justified the charge of “money laundering.” What’s more, reliance on a steady group of boosters and Sami’s stashing of several bottles of liquor in the house elevated the case to “racketeering,” which opened up Shamoon’s home to civil forfeiture under the Arizona Racketeering Act. Because civil suits do not come with the right to a lawyer, Shamoon would have no money with which to defend himself.

Did he know what his brother was up to? “I thought it possible Shamoon Yousif was being deceived,” the lead officer on the case, Sarah Thrower, of the Phoenix Police Department’s Homeland Defense Bureau, conceded. But she and her colleagues concluded that, because Shamoon was a competent businessman who, as she wrote in a police report, “took all legal responsibility” for the income generated by both stores, he “knew or had reason to know” about his brother’s dealings.

Eventually, a recent law-school graduate named Jean-Jacques Cabou heard about the case, found the details galling, and offered his services. “Forfeiture cases like these are almost impossible to fight,” he told me earlier this year, after he’d devoted hundred of hours to the case. “It’s the Guantánamo Bay of the legal system.” As he sorted through Shamoon Yousif’s case records, Cabou noticed something odd. The investigation had drawn on resources from the Arizona Counter Terrorism Information Center—a so-called “fusion center” in Maricopa County meant to integrate mundane local crime data with federal intelligence streams, in search of clues about terrorism plots. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano once hailed the fusion-center initiative as “one of the centerpieces of our counterterrorism strategy.” It has since lost lustre. Last fall, a Senate report concluded that these centers have produced mostly “irrelevant, useless or inappropriate intelligence reporting.” A Senate aide involved in the report told me that investigations prompted by the local centers often veer toward prospects with lucrative cash-seizure potential.

This may be how a case that involved petty thefts of sweaters, jeans, and bottles of Jack Daniels gained the aura of a counterterrorism investigation. Shamoon Yousif, with Cabou’s help, finally reached a settlement with the state attorney general, which allowed him to keep his home and stores as a debtor to the state. Shamoon says, “Why’d we settle? Because I’ve got no money left. I owe thousands and thousands to my cousins, to my friends, to the bank.” Today, he works fourteen-hour days, and turns over the bulk of his monthly salary to a ricofund. In recent years, Maricopa County’s fund has been censured for its controversial outlays. It sponsored an anti-immigrant radio host’s book tour promoting “Another Man’s Sombrero: A Conservative Broadcaster’s Undercover Journey Across the Mexican Border.” It also helped to support Christian evangelist programs like the “Missionettes,” which aims to “win girls to Jesus Christ . . . to teach them to obey everything Jesus commanded.”

In other words, the Phoenix Police Department ruined an innocent person's life in order to fund an immigrant bashing radio host's book tour. 

Even where the intended targets of the forfeiture laws are reached, the laws prove counter-productive, because local law enforcement is more concerned about stuffing its coffers than convicting criminals:

But Marie Crawford, the councilwoman, had begun to notice a few things that didn’t sit right with her. “The lady with the Christmas packages, she was in jail for one night, and then they let her right out,” Crawford told me. It affronted her sense of justice that someone who appeared to be a major money launderer was swiftly released and never hit with criminal charges. Something similar happened with a Nashville man found to be transporting more than eighty-one thousand dollars and a large stash of cocaine in the trunk of his Chevrolet, and another mule hauling ninety-five thousand dollars.

“Hey, I’ve got kids and grandkids, I want drugs off the street,” Crawford said. “But all we were doing was taking their money and sending them on down the road.”

Hard to imagine a more corrupt system of law enforcement. Get out of jail (not free) cards for criminals and highway robbery for innocent people, all to enrich crooked law enforcement officials.