Asset forfeiture laws allow police to confiscate property which is believed to have been obtained through criminal activity. The idea is that people who break the law shouldn’t be allowed to profit from their crimes. Unfortunately, asset forfeiture requires minimal evidence, often resulting in people losing property to law-enforcement without even being charged with a crime. Despite reforms at the state and federal level, we continue to hear horror stories about police taking advantage of these policies and confiscating property from innocent people.

As the struggling economy takes its toll on local law-enforcement budgets, police face an increased temptation to abuse their forfeiture powers. Mix in a little racial profiling and the situation quickly escalates into a shocking pattern of gratuitous civil rights abuses:

TENAHA — You can drive into this dusty fleck of a town near the Texas-Louisiana border if you’re African-American, but you might not be able to drive out of it — at least not with your car, your cash, your jewelry or other valuables.

That’s because the police here have allegedly found a way to strip motorists, many of them black, of their property without ever charging them with a crime. Instead, they offer out-of-towners a grim choice: voluntarily sign over your belongings to the town or face felony charges of money laundering or other serious crimes.

More than 140 people reluctantly accepted that deal from June 2006 to June 2008, according to court records. Among them were a black grandmother from Akron, Ohio, who surrendered $4,000 in cash after Tenaha police pulled her over, and an interracial couple from Houston, who gave up more than $6,000 after police threatened to seize their children and put them into foster care, the court documents show. Neither the grandmother nor the couple were charged with or convicted of any crime. [Star-Telegram]

It’s a perversion of justice on several levels. First, nearby Shreveport is a popular gambling destination, thus it’s common for motorists in the area to travel with larger-than-usual amounts of cash. This is perfectly legal, of course. Given that officers have confiscated property from 147 people who were never charged with a crime, it seems impossible for police to genuinely believe all of them were involved in something illegal.

Worse yet, when civil rights attorneys began investigating the situation, they were able to locate 40 victims of the forfeiture policy and only one was white. Racial profiling appears to dictate which motorists are targeted for asset forfeiture, as has often been the case in other high-profile forfeiture controversies.

How to Protect Yourself

Unfortunately, if you’re caught in an out-of-control situation like this, there’s no easy or perfect way to handle it. The first and most important step is to remain calm. Becoming agitated will only escalate the situation, so stay cool even if you’re being treated unfairly.

Keep in mind that police will often use threats and intimidation to convince you to waive your rights. In a forfeiture situation, officers will often claim that you’ll be charged with money laundering if you don’t sign over the property. Don’t buy it. If they had evidence to charge you with a crime, chances are they would already have placed you under arrest. Ask to speak with an attorney and don’t sign anything.

If you’re arrested or any property is taken from you, contact a lawyer immediately.