In 2007 Jennifer Boatwright, a Houston resident, was traveling up I-59 with her boyfriend and two small children to visit family when she was pulled over in the tiny Texas town of Tenaha. Cops searched Boatwright’s car and, after finding over $6,000 she had placed in the car’s console so that she could purchase a used car on her trip, accused her of a being a drug runner. Tenaha officials then gave Boatwright two options: face felony charges for “money laundering” and “child endangerment,” in which case she would go to jail and her children would be turned over to CPS. Or sign the cash over to the city of Tenaha under a process known as asset forfeiture, and get back on the road with no charges. Fearing for her children, Boatwright signed away her hard-earned cash.
In another equally upsetting example from Philadelphia, an elderly couple’s breakfast was interrupted by a knock on the door: it was the police, telling them that their home had been seized and that they had ten minutes to gather five decades worth of belongings and get out. Police auctioned off their home because the couple’s grandson had allegedly made several marijuana deals on their front porch.
The basic principle behind asset forfeiture is this: cash or property gained through illegal means, such as drug money or stolen property, does not rightfully belong to the owner and therefore authorities are entitled to confiscate the items and direct the proceeds toward fighting crime. State and federal laws allow asset forfeiture in instances as diverse as white collar fraud, illegal gambling, prostitution, cockfighting, poaching, drug dealing, gang activity and drag racing. Under most laws, you don’t have to be proven guilty or even arrested in order for asset forfeiture to occur. Once a victim is coerced into asset forfeiture, getting their assets back is an unlikely venture involving complex proceedings and high attorney costs, with the defendant often bearing the burden of proving their innocence.