You may have heard the term “shakedown” before. If you haven’t, a shakedown is a slang term for extortion, a criminal offense to obtain money or property from an individual or institution. What you may not know is that the police, those sworn to protect you, perform legalized “shakedowns” regularly.

This legalized robbery has a fancy name: civil asset forfeiture. Civil asset forfeiture is a legal process that allows the police to seize your property or cash without having convicted you of a crime. In fact, all the police need to seize your property or cash is to have “reasonable satisfaction.” Simply put, the police need to only conclude that a piece of evidence, such as believing your large sum of cash is drug money, is more likely to be true than not.

Civil asset forfeiture data in Alabama and beyond

In Alabama alone, courts awarded police departments and other law enforcement agencies $2.2 million in 827 readied cases. In one quarter of those cases, no criminal charges were filed against the defendant whose property was legally seized.

In many cases where criminal charges are filed, the defendant is black. In fact, 64% of the cash seizure and civil forfeiture cases in Alabama that involved criminal charges contained black defendants. This statistic comes from a state where only 27% of the population is African American.

Data tracking the egregious amounts of money seized by police across a nation is even more shocking. Between 2001 and 2014 police seized $2.5 billion in assets and cash from those not convicted of a crime.

The U.S. Supreme Court has stepped in

The constitution bans excessive fines but to what extent? On February 20, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that this ban extends to state and local governments.

This ban on excessive fines was added to the Bill of Rights to protect individual liberty.  The ban means that state entities cannot constitutionally use fines to raise revenue.

As for how this affects the police and other law enforcement agencies, the ban on excessive fines confirms these seizures cannot be “excessive,” which is a broad term.  If these departments use excessive fines to generate revenue, they are likely to fall into a constitutional problem.