Don’t you hate it when the government takes your money? Oh, sure, paying taxes that contribute to programs you don’t agree with is kind of a pain. But I’m actually talking about the government physically reaching into your pocket and taking all of our cash under threat of imprisonment.

Sounds like something only Denzel Washington in Training Day would do, right? Actually: right now, in the United States, it is perfectly reasonable for a police officer to confiscate all of your valuables without even charging you with a crime. It’s called civil forfeiture, and it’s just as bad as it sounds.

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Right about now is when everyone who has never had a negative encounter with the police comes out of the woodwork to say something like this: “If you don’t do anything wrong, the police won’t bother you.”

First of all, this argument is terrible on its own merits, because the police shouldn’t take advantage of anyone – even if they have done something wrong. Regrettably, America has less trust in our law enforcement officials than at any other point in our history. And with good reason.

In any event, what makes civil forfeiture especially outrageous is that it’s happening to people who have committed no crime except driving around with large amounts of cash.

In one instance, a man was driving from Michigan to San Francisco with $2,400 in cash, which his dad had lent him to start a new business. He was pulled over in Nevada and ask for his license, registration, and how much money he was carrying. The man was forthright with the officer and told him about the money he had in the trunk of his car. Suspecting the man was a drug dealer, because apparently drug dealers are the only people in America who carry around United States legal tender, the police officer called in a K9 unit. Guess what? The dog didn’t find anything. But, because the police officer still thought the man was driving to San Francisco to purchase drugs, he took the money. And it was totally legal.

In a recent investigation into civil forfeiture, the Washington Post found that there have been 61,998 cash seizures since 9/11: they total more than $2.5 billion. None of those seizures were made after law enforcement obtained a warrant or indictment.

The strange reason why this is all legal is that the police are only taking the property based on the belief that it was, or could be, used in the crime. They don’t need to prove beyond a reasonable doubt in a court of law that the money or, in some cases, even houses and cars, they are taking were involved in a crime – all they have to say is that they believe there is evidence that this is the case. The police officer then has absolute authority to take the money, which is rightfully owned by an American citizen. It then goes directly into his or her own department.

Does this sound like a conflict of interest to anybody else?

You might think: Well, it isn’t like it’s going straight into their own pocket. The thing is, though, beyond it going back into the police department, no one is exactly sure where it goes. In one of the few instances where money from civil forfeiture was accounted for in a police budget, it was found to be used to buy a margarita machine for a police department. Now that’s taking citizens’ money for some government waste if ever I’ve seen it.

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Holly Whitman

Holly Whitman is the author behind Only Slightly Biased, a freelance journalist and striving to be one of the best women political writers on the web. Her work has been featured on Yahoo Finance, Fortune, Politicus, Bust and Feministing. You can find her on Twitter at @hollykwhitman.

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