As I’ve written about time and time again, one of the most pernicious features of civil asset forfeiture is how it can be used to not only seize property based on mere suspicion, but also to seize property from innocent owners who were in no way connected to any alleged illegal activity.
In many cases, this takes the form of police seizing parents’ cars because of things their children do. The parents must then prove their innocence to retrieve their own property. Today’s bit of anecdotal data comes from Tennessee’s Fox13:
Vencie Varnado said he fell victim to the system in April, when Millington police seized his Mercedes after his son was arrested for marijuana possession. What followed was a six month battle between Varnado and a law loosely regulated by the State’s Department of Safety.
“His job was to take my property away from me,” Varnado said, describing an employee at the Tennessee Department of Safety the day he went to get his car back from the state.
“I asked him if he had any interest in an innocent owner,” Varnado added. “He said, ‘No. I work for the state. My job is to take your property from you.'”
Varnado maintains he is the innocent owner of the car. He provided the title to FOX13, proving he is the sole owner of the vehicle. When he took his proof to authorities, Varnado said they treated him like the criminal, asking him to pay more than $3,000 to buy his car back from the police department.
Reason has previously written about similar cases, such as a Washington couple who are challenging Arizona’s asset forfeiture laws after police seized their car while their son was driving through the state. Or another Arizona lawsuit brought by a mother whose truck was seized because her son borrowed it and installed stolen parts. Or a case in New Mexico, where a woman is suing Albuquerque for seizing her car after her son was arrested for drunk driving. In one of the more infamous asset forfeiture cases, the Philadelphia District Attorney seized a couple’s house after their son was arrested for selling $40 worth of drugs outside.
There’s also cases where children’s assets are seized for the suspected crimes of their parents. The San Diego District Attorney seized the savings accounts of two teenagers because their father ran a medical marijuana company.
Shrewd observers might notice a pattern emerging. Law enforcement organizations say civil asset forfeiture is a critical tool to stop drug traffickers and organized criminal operations, but civil liberties groups say the perverse profit incentives created by asset forfeiture lead just as often to everyday citizens being shaken down.