Imagine that you’re driving across the United States with $2500 in cash. Maybe it’s a deposit on a new apartment; it doesn’t really matter – it’s yours and it’s all legally acquired. You get pulled over. You weren’t speeding, but this stretch of highway has been used by drug runners before, all of whom were regular people driving regular cars, just like yourself. The fact that you’re not doing anything suspicious is highly suspicious. When they discover the cash their suspicions are confirmed – you are now definitely, definitelyinvolved in the drug trade, but you’re not under arrest or even accused of a crime. Your $2500 cash is gone, though, but the local police department doesn’t have to stop there. Since your car was being used to transport the money, it can be seized too. Your phone could have been used to call your drug cartel contacts, so it belongs to them now. You’re not on trial: your car, phone and money have to prove that they are not involved in anything illegal, leading to bizarre legal cases like State of New Jersey v. One 1990 Ford Thunderbird.
This is civil asset forfeiture, and it brings two billion dollars in to US police departments every year, with more coming in to the Canadian provinces that have also adopted the practice. The idea seemed logical when it started in the eighties at the height of both Reagan’s get-tough-on-crime rhetoric and the birth of the crack-cocaine epidemic: allow police to seize the Escalades and white tigers drug dealers were buying – don’t just take away the guns and kilos of uncut Peruvian flake, but also the plastic baggies and weight scales, all the mundane items that make the drug trade possible.