Latest ACLU Advertisement Targets Asset Forfeiture Laws

April 27, 2001 12:00 am

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NEW YORK – Saying asset forfeiture laws provide the police with a license to steal, the American Civil Liberties Union has launched a new attack against this form of unfettered law enforcement abuse with its latest national advertisement.

“Thanks to civil asset forfeiture laws, possessions that took you a lifetime to acquire can be taken in the blink of an eye, or, more accurately, the flash of a badge,” the advertisement says. “The forfeiture laws were designed as a new government weapon in the ‘war on drugs.’ But they’ve done little more than provide law enforcement with a license to steal.”

The ACLU advertisement modifies the instantly recognizable World War II-era image of a stern Uncle Sam with an outstretched finger. Instead of the standard tag line of “I Want You,” the new ACLU ad says: “I Want Your Money, Jewelry, Car, Boat and House.”

The advertisement, which is scheduled to appear in The New York Times Sunday Magazine on April 29 and in the May 9 issue of The New Yorker, is the latest in a hard-hitting series of public policy messages from the ACLU. Previous advertisements this year have focused on winning anti-discrimination protections for lesbians and gay men and, most recently, on the loss of individual privacy through high-tech government wiretaps.

The asset forfeiture advertisement takes aim at another example of out-of-control government actions that have been decried by an unusually broad array of organizations, from the ACLU to the National Rifle Association. The practice has also drawn the ire of conservative members of Congress such as Reps. Henry Hyde, R-IL, and Dick Armey, R-TX.

Under current law, as the ACLU ad explains, law enforcement agencies need only meet a low legal standard – known as probable cause – before they can seize everything, from family photos to life savings. In recent years, forfeiture laws have become a major source of funds for law enforcement agencies as the value of property seized has soared into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

“Allowing authorities to take away and sell a person’s vehicle or home without proving that he or she has done something wrong flies in the face of basic American values,” said Graham Boyd, the Director of the ACLU’s Drug Policy Litigation Project. “Forfeiting a person’s property without a conviction undermines the bedrock principle of our legal system: that a person is innocent until proven guilty.”

Boyd said that the limited constitutional protections for individuals subjected to civil forfeiture laws create a system that is ripe for abuse. Particularly appalling is the list of cases that document the disproportionate impact on minorities due to the use of racial profiling of African American and Hispanic travelers.

Willie Jones, for example, an African American landscaper, experienced the humiliation and pain of asset forfeiture when he had $9,600 in cash seized from him at the Nashville airport simply because he fit a so-called “drug courier profile” – that is, he was an African American paying for a round-trip airline ticket with cash. He actually planned to use the money to buy landscape materials.

In recent years, as the Jones incident and others drew media attention, the public has shown increasing unease about asset forfeiture practices. Last November, Oregon voters amended their state constitution to require a criminal conviction before a forfeiture action is completed. Utah’s voters also approved a similar measure in November.

And in 1999, Congress adopted a measure pushed by Rep. Hyde that somewhat reined in federal asset forfeiture laws. The ACLU, which worked hard to build support for the Hyde bill, said it represented a historic first step in ending the unfair seizure of innocent people’s property, but said much more remains to be done.

“Working with our network of state offices and allies, we will continue to press this battle until this medieval practice is barred by law in every state across the country,” Boyd said.

After all, as the ACLU advertisement notes, “who can you call when the police are the ones robbing you?

The creative minds behind the ad series, DeVito/Verdi Advertising, also developed last year’s ACLU advertising series, which included messages on racial profiling, juvenile justice and the death penalty.

The ACLU advertising campaign will be featured on the organization’s website,, with links to relevant documents and news about each issue. The next advertisement, on the topic of reproductive freedom is scheduled to run in the May 13 issue of The New York Times Magazine and in the May 21 issue of The New Yorker.

The ACLU is a nationwide, non-partisan organization dedicated to defending and preserving the Bill of Rights for all individuals through litigation, legislation and public education.

Headquartered in New York City, the ACLU has 53 staffed affiliates that cover every state, more than 300 chapters nationwide, and a legislative office in Washington, DC. The bulk of the annual $40 million budget is raised by contributions from members — 275,000 strong — and gifts and grants from other individuals and foundations.

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