We can neither confirm or deny if we have the mayor’s possessions.” That was reportedly the statement from the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Sacramento to Stockton, Calif. Mayor Anthony Silva last month.

Silva has been returning to the United States from a conference of mayors meeting held in China when he says he was robbed…by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

According to Silva, agents of the federal government, acting without a search warrant or any documents from a court, seized his electronics at the airport, including his cellphone.

They indicated that this action to confiscate personal property at the airport was in fact routine and not unusual. They promised to return my items within a few days. They also mentioned that I had no right for a lawyer to be present and being a United States Citizen did not entitle me to rights that I probably thought.

Perhaps one of the more interesting aspects of this particular case was the agents’ demands that the mayor provide his passwords for every one of his electronic devices, before they were all seized.

Very few people realize their property can be taken under conditions in which there is no presumption of innocence or right to an attorney. Since civil asset-forfeiture proceedings are not criminal, property owners who are not actually engaged in any crime can have various possessions confiscated at whim (requiring only a judge’s rubber stamp) and they face certain difficulties in reacquiring it. Not only that, there are clear incentives for law enforcement to maximize seizures to fund their own operations.

Civil forfeiture is a practice with a long history. It has been used extensively in maritime law for centuries to keep the offending property from sailing off. During the Prohibition Era, it was used to seize equipment and vehicles from bootleggers. It seems fair to most of us that late-model vehicles purchased with illegal drug revenues might be better employed for the public good by law enforcement surveillance of suspected illegal activity. Especially in cases where the subjects might otherwise notice that they were being followed by a car with “General Services Agency” stamped on the tires or bearing other government identification.

On the other hand, there doesn’t seem to be much support for the government grabbing things, mainly cash, from people who present no probable cause profile except that they carry unusual amounts of cash. Asset forfeiture is generally supposed to target instrumentalities of a crime, but the connection appears to be eroding. There have been, at least anecdotally, a rash of seizures by governments where criminal culpability has not been established and there was never any attempt to prove it.

According to the State of Michigan’s 2014 Asset Forfeiture Report, $23.9 million was seized last year just from suspected drug-related forfeitures. Some of the cases make interesting reading. The 2008 report included $900 in fees that 44 patrons of the Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit were required to pay to get their cars back after attending “Funk Night” at the museum. They were able to recover their cars, but not their fees, even after a judge eventually said they lacked criminal intent when they parked at the museum, which had failed to obtain a liquor license for the party.

Two highlights of the Michigan report illustrate elements of the problem. The report notes that 12 percent of forfeiture revenues were used for personnel and benefits. In other words, these funds – some pillaged from people who’ve done nothing wrong – are used to support law-enforcement personnel whose jobs are funded by the seizures.

The second eyebrow-raising statistic is that 80 percent of the cases last year – 8,558 – never went to court. All of these transactions were with law-enforcement agencies. State and federal agencies share the plunder. The Heritage Foundation reports the revenues from Michigan’s civil seizures were used to fund all manner of new toys for the police, sheriff’s deputies and agents, including helicopters, armored personnel carriers and even a margarita machine.

A couple of weeks ago, the Michigan Senate unanimously passed a series of bills that would make critical reforms to the system, referred to as “policing for profit.” The major change in Michigan, Ohio and several other states considering reform would be to deny civil forfeiture unless a person has been found guilty of a crime. Other provisions would require more disclosure from law-enforcement agencies when seizures of property are processed.

This seems like a wise thing to do.

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