Trump’s Drug Law: Punishment Before The Crime

February 10, 2017

America’s been so occupied fretting about vastly unqualified Cabinet secretaries grinding the gears of state so badly they break and desperately trying to unpack Donald Trump’s understanding of geopolitics that we’ve forgotten the new president’s most ominous warnings.

According to the two major speeches he’s delivered to date, at his Inauguration and at last summer’s Republican convention, the president believes—or says he believes—that a wave of “American carnage” has drowned the land, and only a new age of “law and order” can beat back the tide of lawlessness.

One way to do that, he suggested Tuesday, is to ensure police and prosecutors can still punish Americans—literally relieving them of their homes, personal property and wealth—without ever even accusing them of committing a crime.

Trump has proven extremely popular among the nation’s police.

On Tuesday, he welcomed a delegation of the country’s county sheriffs to Washington for a face-to-face. (Miraculously, one urban-dwelling, cowboy-hat-loving sheriff whose jail inmates keep mysteriously dying and who once ordered a man who looked at him funny on a plane be detained appeared to not be present.)

As CNBC recounted, Trump asked the sheriffs present “how we can bring about law enforcement in a very good, civil and lovely way, but we have to stop crime.” Harold Eavenson, the sheriff of Rockwall County, in suburban Dallas—Texas’s smallest county, and one of its richest—immediately piped up to complain about asset forfeiture reform.

Recall that for many years, police departments across the country have been able to take—seize, swipe, carry away—any property or money that they believe was purchased or gleaned from the sale of illegal drugs. No conviction is required; the person from whom the property was seized doesn’t even need to be arrested, let alone accused of a crime or face charges. Instead, that person has to go to court to prove that his or her property came from legal work. It’s the only instance of American jurisprudence in which the burden of proof is on the defendant and not the prosecutor.

Police departments have treated asset forfeiture as a convenient ATM. One department even compiled a “shopping list” of items it wanted to find and then seize. As the Washington Post’s Christopher Ingraham tweeted, asset forfeiture has spun so wildly out of control that one year, Americans lost more property to police than they did to burglars.

Lawmakers, including two Texas state senators, have proposed modest reform to drug-related asset forfeiture—such as requiring that someone needs to be convicted of a drug-related crime before police can take their shit. That’s a bridge too far for Eavenson, who took his beef to Trump. And the president responded, to laughter from the lawmen in the room, by asking for the senator’s name and suggesting that maybe he should “wreck [the lawmakers’] career.”

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