John Oliver dedicated much of “Last Week Tonight” on Sunday to explaining what America’s civil forfeiture law is, and how police officers across the country have taken advantage of it to steal billions from civilians.
“Since 9/11, under just one program, police have taken $2.5 billion in the course of over 61,000 seizures of cash alone, from people who — and this is the mind blowing part — were not charged with a crime,” Oliver said during the HBO broadcast (above). “That is the sort of police behavior that we laugh at other countries for, along with their accents and silly hats.”
While the law is designed to thwart drug traffickers and the crime organizations they’re working for, Oliver highlighted the story of a Michigan man who was driving to San Francisco with $2,400 in cash from his father. When pulled over in Nevada, a police officer asked how much cash he was carrying, demanded to see it, then confiscated because his “investigation” concluded the man was traveling to California in order to purchase drugs.
“Wow. There is so much wrong there,” Oliver said. “Including the fact that any policeman who genuinely believes you need to travel from Michigan to California to purchase drugs needs to be introduced to the University of Wisconsin, Madison.”
Civil asset forfeiture allows officers to confiscate property if they believe they have evidence to suggest it has been or just could be used in a crime. The case is brought against the piece of property, not the person, and the property is guilty until proven innocent.
The American Civil Liberties Union has been calling for reform of civil forfeiture laws, because the organization believes practices “often go hand-in-hand with racial profiling and disproportionately impact low-income African-American or Hispanic people who the police decide look suspicious and for whom the arcane process of trying to get one’s property back is an expensive challenge.”
To demonstrate just how much police departments can take advantage of the law for their own benefit, Oliver found a 2012 citizen police review board hearing in Columbia, Mo., during which police chief Ken Burton admits, “There are some limitations on it — actually, there’s not really.”
Burton continued to explain that his department uses the law to purchase things “that we can’t get in the budget,” and called forfeitures of cash from civilians “pennies from heaven.”
“‘We’re like the anti-Spider-Man — great power with no responsibility,” Oliver said while mocking the man.