So what did Clarke do to lose his money? His bag smelled like pot. That’s it. There was no pot actually in his bag. It just smelled that way, to police and to a drug dog. He did admit to smoking some pot before he arrived at the airport. But that at worst is a misdemeanor. And of course in several states it’s perfectly legal.
Lopez points out that, since 2008, the number of seizures at the Cincinnati airport in which local police operate through the federal government (known as equitable sharing) has increased nine-fold. That’s what happens when police agencies are promised a cut of whatever cash they seize.
There’s a decent argument to be made that criminals shouldn’t be permitted to profit from their crimes. That’s the premise upon which asset forfeiture is based. But in the drug-war panic of the 1980s, the federal government, followed by most of the states, decided that requiring an actual conviction before the government could seize property made forfeiture too difficult. So “civil” asset forfeiture was born. Because it was a civil action, it required a lower burden of proof. And because the target of the action was a piece of property, instead of a person, the government could keep the property, essentially flipping the tables to require the owner to prove he owned or obtained the property legitimately.