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EDITORIAL: Stop police officers from stealing money

Police are supposed to thwart organized crime rings, not imitate their tactics. But that’s what civil asset forfeiture allows them to do.

This month, small-business owner Jerry Johnson received back $39,500 that was unjustly taken from him in the summer of 2020. This wasn’t a case of police tirelessly working to track down a criminal. Nope, it was the police that took his money. They only returned it when forced to by an Arizona court.

Mr. Johnson flew to Phoenix in 2020. He brought with him $39,500 in cash. He runs a small trucking company in Charlotte, North Carolina. He was traveling to purchase a semi-truck from an auction house.

Instead, a police officer confronted him at baggage claim. Mr. Johnson showed him the money, and the officer claimed it smelled like marijuana. Threatened with arrest and a serious criminal charge, Mr. Johnson signed a “disclaimer of ownership of currency form.” The police took his money.

A mafia goon couldn’t have run a better shakedown. Bully someone with a potential arrest but let it go if they’ll just pay some protection money. The police have a key advantage over criminal enterprises. This is legal in many states.

Mr. Johnson decided to fight to get his money back. The indispensable Institute for Justice eventually took on his case. A trial court made him prove the money was his. In many forfeiture cases, the defendant, not the government, bears the burden of proof. That is an inexcusable reversal of how it should be. An appeals court eventually found in his favor, and Mr. Johnson just received his money back. But this is far from a fairytale ending.

“Jerry’s case potently illustrates the injustice of civil forfeiture even when someone ultimately gets their property back,” Dan Alban, an IJ senior attorney, said. “It took 31 months for Jerry to finally get his savings back even though he was never even charged with a crime.”

The silver lining in this case is that it led to the Arizona Legislature reforming its civil asset forfeiture law. Forfeiture now requires a criminal conviction in most cases, and officers can’t intimidate people into giving up their right to their property.

Nevada, unfortunately, doesn’t have similar protections, as a high-profile case from Winnemucca a few years ago showed. That would change if the Legislature passed Sen. Ira Hansen’s Senate Bill 337. It would overhaul Nevada’s civil forfeiture laws, including requiring a conviction, plea deal or agreement for forfeiture to occur. Further, a law enforcement agency couldn’t “retain forfeited property for its own use.”

It’s time. Police should be incentivized to protect private property, not seize it.

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