In New York, police are seizing people’s stuff for no good reason
“Gr8 work 1×9 Conditions team,” gloated a New York Police Department Twitter account this month. “Arrested a male for a gravity knife and vouchered 18,000 dollars cash for forfeiture.”
In English, that means the NYPD arrested a man for the dastardly crime of owning a small pocketknife—not stabbing or even threatening anyone with it, just owning it—and then stole $18,000 from him via civil asset forfeiture. As if to add insult to injury, the tweet included a photo showing the knife, the cash, and the arrestee’s car registration, with his name and address decipherable for the whole world to see.
Two things are going on here, one comparatively unique to New York City and one plaguing all of these United States.
The unique part is the gravity knife arrest. A true gravity knife is a very unusual weapon. Originally developed for German paratroopers to use during World War II, gravity knives have blades that fully retract into their handles. The name comes from the fact that it could be opened by a soldier one-handed. The blades were as much as a foot long—legitimately lethal stuff.
But NYC has a conveniently loose interpretation of its gravity knife ban. Basically, no one in New York, except perhaps a World War II buff, has a real gravity knife. But the NYPD considers just about any pocketknife a gravity knife.
This serves as a dishonest pretext for police to initiate confrontations with huge numbers of New Yorkers who aren’t bothering anyone and don’t believe they’re breaking any laws. It’s even illegal to possess these pocketknives in your own home, plus getting caught with one can mean years in prison. And perhaps unsurprisingly given NYC’s abysmal record on racial discrimination in stop-and-frisk encounters, the gravity knife ban disproportionately affects minorities’ right to self-defense.
So that was the pretext for the stop that led to this $18,000 confiscation. Thankfully, it isn’t likely to be duplicated outside of New York City—but the confiscation itself easily could be.
The money was taken under an increasingly notorious policy called civil asset forfeiture, an insidious and unconstitutional confiscation practice used by law enforcement at all levels of American government, from local police all the way up to the FBI.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but civil asset forfeiture infuriates me like nothing else.
It’s when police take your money or stuff on the grounds that they find you (or even just someone you know) suspicious. Once your property is confiscated, the burden of proof is on you, not the cops, to demonstrate that the confiscated cash doesn’t have criminal connections.
Because police don’t have to charge you or present any evidence of illegal activity, you have no constitutional protections. (The Sixth Amendment is interpreted to mean everyone has a right to an attorney in court, but since your money is the accused party, it doesn’t get Sixth Amendment rights.) In some jurisdictions, you actually have to pay a fee just to be able to contest the seizure, let alone to be certain your stuff will be returned.
So that $18,000 could have been confiscated almost anywhere in America, because civil asset forfeiture is legal in most states. It doesn’t matter that this man might have been carrying that cash for a totally innocent reason.
Maybe he was buying a car or some other big-ticket item off Craigslist. Maybe he owns acash-only restaurant or other business and was taking earnings to the bank. Maybe it was a deposit on a new home or other property.
Each of those is a real-life example of innocent reasons Americans were carrying large sums of cash that were essentially stolen by law enforcement. It’s hard to believe this could be legal in a country that prides itself on freedom and individual rights, yet it is.
But back to New York. It turns out NYC has seized so much money from New Yorkers that the NYPD can’t even count it all. Just attempting to collect all the data would crash the department’s computers, the NYPD said.
One unjust confiscation case is galling enough, but this is abuse of private property and individual liberty on a grand scale. It is past time for civil asset forfeiture to go, and New York is a great place to start.