President Donald Trump is struggling to find the money for the border wall he promised voters. One local lawmaker thinks he can help.
Oklahoma state Rep. Bobby Cleveland (R) wants to donate his state’s civil asset forfeiture seizures to chip in for Trump’s wall. Cleveland, who is sometimes pictured in local media wearing a MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN hat, thinks that the controversial and oft-abused cash seizures system really only targets drug money.
“The vast majority of it is either coming from Mexico or headed there,” Cleveland told the Tulsa World. “By redirecting this cash to construction efforts, Mexico will be paying for the wall just as promised.”
Oklahoma law enforcement seize roughly $5 million in cash and $2 million in property each year on average, according to public records compiled by the Institute for Justice. Cleveland could divert every penny seized in Oklahoma — at the expense of the state and local police agencies that pad their budgets with forfeiture dollars today — and it would fund roughly one four-thousandth of the estimated $20 billion pricetag for Trump’s wall.
Cleveland’s proposal, then, is akin to dropping a few quarters into the Salvation Army bucket at Christmastime. Sure, it’s helping the cause a little. Mostly it’s making you feel good — and hey, if everybody did it we’d be talking about some real money.
Similarly, if Trump decided to push for funding the wall entirely through forfeiture dollars, he could probably shrink the amount billed directly to taxpayers dramatically — though not all the way to zero.
Federal agencies rip huge sums of cash away from people merely suspected of criminal activity, usually without ever even charging the suspect with any crime. The Drug Enforcement Agency alone has taken down $4 billion in forfeiture cash — and an untold sum in seized property — since 2007, according to a recent Department of Justice Inspector General’s report. The DOJ’s total forfeiture collections hit $4.5 billion in 2014. The Treasury Department zaps millions more out of private hands based on similar uncharged suspicions.
But even all these large federal collections come up way short of the up-front cost of building a physical wall along the entire U.S.-Mexico border. It took 13 years for the DOJ and Treasury to collect $29 billion in forfeiture funds, according to the Institute for Justice’s analysis.
Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-TX) more theatrical take on the idea would get closer to fulfilling Trump’s campaign promise to build a wall without spending American money. Cruz wants to make cartel overlord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman pay for the wall personally, by using the $14 billion asset seizure which the prosecutors going after El Chapo are seeking.
The math of these forfeiture-based wall-builder ideas is one thing. The morality is another.
Forfeiture laws allow the state to steal from its citizens without ever accusing them of a crime in court — and thus without ever giving them the opportunity to defend themselves. Indeed, in most jurisdictions the onus is on the victim of a seizure to prove their cash or home or car is not connected to criminal activity. It is a deep perversion of the fundamental due process rights afforded to citizens in conflicts with their government.
The Supreme Court upheld forfeiture based solely on a grand jury indictment by a 6–3 ruling in 2014, which saw the unusual trans-ideological triplet of conservative Chief Justice John Roberts and liberal Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer all dissenting. A decision this month on a separate legal question seems to undermine the court’s logic in supporting forfeiture, but there is little reason to expect a reversal from the justices any time soon.
That 2014 case involved a couple headed to criminal trial. But many forfeiture victims are never actually going to end up in court. Police have simply taken their stuff and dared them to prove it wasn’t bought with crime-tainted money.
Police officers have a huge incentive to play fast-and-loose with forfeiture rules. They need only swear they suspect a person of criminal involvement to take their stuff. Cops have impounded church donations, family homes, and thousands of personal vehicles based on the most tenuous alleged criminality imaginable. The process for challenging a seizure is esoteric, expensive, slow, and slanted in favor of the state.
When a citizen doesn’t or can’t challenge a seizure successfully, the cops get the money. It’s a racket ripe for abuse — and when reformers have pushed to curtail those abuses, law enforcement officials have accused them of colluding with criminals.
That attitude is alive and well in the Trump administration. Attorney General Jeff Sessions has said he believes that 95 percent of the time, people who have their assets seized “have done nothing in their lives but sell dope.” Trump himself seems not to have thought about the issue very much, but joked along approvingly in February when a Texas sheriff told him “the cartel would build a monument” to one particular forfeiture critic if they succeed in curtailing the practice.
“Do you want to give his name?” Trump asked the sheriff. “We’ll destroy his career.”