The agents found nothing in Rivers’s belongings that indicated that he was involved with the drug trade: no drugs, no guns. They didn’t arrest him or charge him with a crime. But they took his cash anyway, every last cent, under the authority of the Justice Department’s civil asset forfeiture program.
There is no presumption of innocence under civil asset forfeiture laws. Rather, law enforcement officers only need to have a suspicion — in practice, often a vague one — that a person is involved with illegal activity in order to seize their property. On the highway, for instance, police may cite things like tinted windows, air fresheners or trash in the car, according to a Washington Post investigation last year.
Once property has been seized, the burden of proof falls on the defendant to get it back — even if the cops ultimately never charge them with a crime. “We don’t have to prove that the person is guilty,” an Albuquerque DEA agent told the Journal. “It’s that the money is presumed to be guilty.”
This means that the DEA can basically steal any cash they ever find, and the onus is on their victims to prove the money was legitimately theirs. Because the DEA overwhelmingly target young, poorer people, they rarely have the means to contest the seizures.
Frankly, I’d like to see a RICO action against the DEA generally. Maybe not everyone there is actively involved in these sorts of thefts, but by working they they enable what has become a fundamentally criminal enterprise — and by getting paid, they receive benefits at least in part because of these crimes.