A new and creative form of asset forfeiture

I am extremely opposed to the practice of asset forfeiture. It’s unjust, preys upon people least likely to defend themselves, and really runs contrary to some fundamental values we’re supposed to hold as a country. Under asset forfeiture laws, law enforcement agencies can take assets with no warrant or explanation, and they can keep them even if it later turns out that you weren’t guilty and they weren’t being used in a crime, which is absolutely ridiculous. It’s a practice that’s also growing, and Oklahoma state police just found a particularly creative approach to it.

They’re going to start carrying devices capable of reading prepaid cards, credit cards, and debit cards, ostensibly with the purpose of collecting data about the carrier, which is chilling enough. In the case of prepaid cards, though, officers can also elect to seize or freeze funds on a card. If that sounds preposterous, it should, because it’s all kinds of violating, and it’s a situation that will disproportionately target low-income people.

The police claim that drug dealers and other criminals are turning to prepaid cards in the commission of crimes, so they need to stay a step ahead of them. Prepaid cards do offer a high degree of anonymity and liquidity, so they would make a highly appealing vehicle for funds used in criminal actions. They’re less bulky than cash, they’re a snap to distribute, and theoretically they could be moved less suspiciously than cash — lots of people get gift cards and some also carry prepaid cards, so it’s not that weird for someone to have a few in her wallet.

However, there’s another group of people that use prepaid cards very heavily: Low-income people who don’t have the resources to open bank accounts. They  might be too poor to meet minimum deposit requirements, may lack sufficient identifications, or may distrust the banking system. For whatever reason, they turn to prepaid cards to manage their financial needs — which is why the RushCard fiasco was such a disaster, effectively like having a bank melt down, trapping everyone’s deposits inside.

Under asset forfeiture laws, they don’t have to meet a very high burden of proof to take money from people. All they have to do is say they think it’s being used, or could be used, in a crime. People with substantial resources might be able to try to fight asset forfeiture, often at great cost, but everyone else has to pretty much give up on the assets that have been seized. Poor people who are relying on prepaid cards for their financial services are probably not in a position to fight to get the money back if it’s whisked away by cops. Nor are they in a position to fight to get their cards unfrozen — and while they wait, that frozen money isn’t available for paying bills and meeting basic needs, which can push people into payday lending and other high risk financial products.

On the surface, the idea of asset forfeiture might seem nice to some people. If you want to stop crime, cut it out at the root — make it financially unwieldy and not worth the effort. The problem is, though, that there’s no real system of accountability here. Moreover, where does that money go? Into the coffers of the very agency that’s confiscating it, usually. That means that police have an active incentive to take as much money as possible, because asset forfeiture monies are used to fund a variety of police activities, from buying shiny new vehicles to purchasing equipment. Well-funded departments get more toys, and police officers like toys very much.

This is a system that’s basically ripe for abuse: You take a setting in which someone in a position of power can seize something from another person with very limited rules and very little recourse and you are going to end up with a net transfer of wealth out of the hands of people who need it the most. In Oklahoma, this situation is going to mean that unbanked people relying on prepaid cards are going to be even more vulnerable than they were before, and many of them are going to be people of colour. People of colour are more likely to be low-income, and they’re more likely to be stopped by law enforcement, which makes for a really devastating one-two punch.

The fact that asset forfeiture is tolerated in the first place is bizarre and offensive. There’s nothing about the practice that meshes with our supposed ideals of freedom and opportunity — we are allowing the state to simply take whatever it wants without having to explain itself or articulate a sound legal justification. Given all the screaming about redistribution of wealth in this country every time someone suggests equalising the tax system or something similar, you’d think there’d be more outrage about asset forfeiture, which is effectively the same thing, but in reverse. We are allowing law enforcement agencies to treat people’s property with incredibly cavalier attitudes, and brag about it.

Technology like this is extremely dangerous in the hands of law enforcement, who don’t really have an imperative to use it responsibly and respectfully. It also has the potential to escape into the wild, where people are even less likely to use it appropriately — if there’s ever an ‘appropriate’ situation for stealing money from someone, at any rate. In addition to collecting funds, though, these systems can be used to skim data, which could be used with potentially catastrophic results for personal safety.

Image: Patriot Guard Riders old police car, Twig73010, Flickr