Cartoon – Civil Asset Forfeiture


The subject no one was asking for a cartoon about! And the cartoon, by me and Kevin Moore!


If you like these cartoons, then statistically you’re probably a mobile home designer from Akron whose name starts with a “C.” And you should support the patreon!


That civil forfeiture exists is continually infuriating, and I’ve been meaning to do a cartoon about it for years.

So what is civil forfeiture (aka civil asset forfeiture)? It’s a rule that allows police departments to take away our property – cash, cars, whatever – and use it to buy more tanks or whatever. And they don’t even have to prove we did anything wrong. The non-profit Institute for Justice gives some examples:

In 2019, nursing student and single mother Stephanie Wilson had not one, but two cars seized by the Detroit Police Department, losing the first one forever. That same year, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and the Transportation Security Administration seized retiree Terry Rolin’s life savings of $82,373 from his daughter as she passed through Pittsburgh International Airport on her way to open a joint bank account for him. Three years earlier and about 1,000 miles away, a sheriff’s deputy in rural Muskogee, Oklahoma, seized more than $53,000 from Eh Wah, the tour manager for a Burmese Christian musical act, during a routine traffic stop; the funds were concert proceeds and donations intended to support Burmese Christian refugees and Thai orphans. None of these victims were convicted of any crime.

Their stories illustrate a nationwide problem: civil forfeiture. Civil forfeiture allows police to seize property on the mere suspicion that it is involved in criminal activity. Prosecutors can then forfeit, or permanently keep, the property without ever charging its owner with a crime.

Many Americans have trouble understanding that the government does this to us. Just take people’s property and upend their lives, without even charging anyone with a crime? Surely that couldn’t happen in American, land of the free, leader of the free world, etc etc..

In our cartoon the joke is based on the people from an unidentified (and, let me be the first to point out, hopefully before y’all point it out to me, unrealistic) past era being incredibly naïve about how 21st century policing works. But really, the two characters from the past are stand-ins for how naïve most present-day Americans (especially, I suspect, white Americans and well-off Americans) are about the police being a benevolent or even heroic institution.

Reason interviewed a married couple – white, educated professionals – whose lives were destroyed by the FBI, when it took almost $1 million from them without ever charging either of them with a crime. One of them said, “It’s completely changed my belief in fairness.”

(Reason is a libertarian magazine that I often disagree with. But civil asset forfeiture is one of those places where my beliefs overlap with libertarian beliefs. Reason has done a lot of good reporting on the subject, if you feel like reading something enraging this morning.)


TRANSCRIPT OF CARTOON

This comic strip has four panels. The first three panels show some sort of historic scene, probably in the old west? There are bandits with guns, and a horse-drawn stagecoach, and cowboy hats, so yeah. Kevin probably did a lot of visual research, but me, I just took extreme liberties with history in order to make the gag work. :-)

Anyhow…

PANEL 1

There are four people in this panel. Two of them are bandits, one holding a gun, the other holding a big knife (or maybe a short sword). Both of them are wearing brown leather boots, vests, and what I think of as cowboy hats. One of them has a big curly mustache.

They are pointing their weapons at a man and a woman. The woman is wearing an anikle-length blue dress with a double row of buttons on the front. The man, who has a huge thick mustache, is wearing a three-piece purple suit and a bowler hat. They have their backs to a horse-drawn stagecoach, and both of them are holding up their hands in the “I surrender, please don’t hurt me” gesture.

BANDIT WITH BIG MUSTACHE: It’s called “highway robbery.” Now give us all your money!

PANEL 2

A shot of the couple who were robbed in panel 1. They are now sitting on the ground, with their backs to a tree. They are in fact tied to the tree, with a long piece of rope wrapped around them and the tree many times. The woman looks distressed, the man just looks sad.

WOMAN: Waylaid! Robbed! How could this happen?

MAN: It’s because our society isn’t advanced enough. But someday, the government will hire thousands of heroes to protect us.

PANEL 3

The “camera” zooms in to a closer shot of them. Although they are still tied to the tree, they now look happy as they gaze into space, thinking of how beautiful the future will be.

MAN: These guardians will be men of the highest character, dedicated to helping ordinary citizens! It’ll be wonderful!

PANEL 4

We have changed time periods, and are now in a modern city.

CAPTION: Centuries later

Despite being centuries later, panel 4 is laid out to be extremely similar to panel 1 – two men are threatening a male and female couple, pointing guns at them. Behind the couple is their car, a red minivan. (I think that’s what it is, I’m terrible at cars). The couple (who look very similar to the couple from panels 1-3, except that they’re in modern clothing) have their hands raised above their heads, the “I surrender” gesture.

The big difference is that the two men threatening the couple are wearing police uniforms.

COP: It’s called “civil forfeiture.” Now give us all your money!


This cartoon on Patreon

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15 Responses to Cartoon – Civil Asset Forfeiture

  1. 1
    Ted Brandston says:

    The reason link under ‘a lot of good reporting” looks to be broken?

    Seems like it should point to https://reason.com/category/criminal-justice/civil-asset-forfeiture/ — perhaps they changed the site layout?

  2. 2
    irilyth says:

    Thanks for keeping an open mind about libertarians, who have a lot more in common with liberals than either does with fascist Republicans. I dream of a day in which libertarians and liberals are arguing about whether bigger or smaller government is the best way to help the most people, and fascist Republicans arguing that most people aren’t actually people are as laughable a historical artifact as flat-earthers.

  3. 3
    Ampersand says:

    Ted, thanks! Correction made.

    Irilyth, I’m pretty anti-libertarian on a lot of things (minimum wage, unions, etc).. But when it comes to criminal justice issues (and a few other, like occupational licensing) they make a lot of sense.

  4. 4
    Görkem says:

    Just curious, what informed your decision to make one of the civil forfeiture victims white? I believe civil forfeiture disproportionately affects POC.

  5. 5
    Eytan Zweig says:

    Görkem – I assumed, admittedly via lazy stereotyping associated with the mustache, that the male victim was Latino.

  6. 6
    Dianne says:

    The hopeful expression on their faces in panel 3 is heartbreaking.

  7. 7
    Görkem says:

    re: Eytan – ah, I didn’t think of that, that makes more sense.

  8. 8
    Ampersand says:

    Gorkem and Eytan – To be honest, I’m not sure if Kevin intended the male character in the last panel to be Latino or not, although he certainly could be.

    The main thing I told Kevin about character design, iirc, is that I did want the victims in panel 4 to resemble the victims in panels 1-3, to make the visual parallel easier to see. If I were to do this cartoon over now that I’ve read your (Gorkem’s) comment, I might suggest that both characters be clearly non-white.

    Dianne, thank you so much! I’ll tell Kevin you said so.

  9. 9
    Corso says:

    It’s nice to agree every now and again: Civil Asset Forfeiture is a blight.

  10. 10
    RonF says:

    This issue has been talked about on Instapundit, Legal Insurrection et. al. for years. Some examples of cases they’ve linked to are here, here, here and here.

    Gorkem:

    Just curious, what informed your decision to make one of the civil forfeiture victims white? I believe civil forfeiture disproportionately affects POC.

    What data is your belief based on?

  11. 12
    Corso says:

    Ron @ 10

    What data is your belief based on?

    Gorkem @ 11

    https://www.splcenter.org/20171030/civil-asset-forfeiture-unfair-undemocratic-and-un-american

    The SPLC isn’t exactly a bastion of statistical honesty, and they didn’t link their data, so normally I’d take what they’re saying with a grain of salt…. But in this specific case, I think that they might even understate the issue.

    It’s hard enough to get police departments to create a national database for things like police involved shootings, which require, at least, the involvement of a second officer to report and a specific, obvious victim… I don’t think there’s going to be anything close to accurate information on the race of the guy who’s car they stole, particularly since the charges, if you can even call them that, end up being filed against the property instead of the owner.

  12. 13
    Saurs says:

    Seconding RonF and Corso’s calls for publicly funding the collecting of full data on victims of civil asset forfeiture: sparse demographic data culled as best as one can from a system designed to obstruct and obscure straightforward analysis supports the theory that race and ethnicity, already correlated to systematic economic marginalization, play an outsized role in the extralegal pillaging/bail/excessive fines projects conducted by our country’s civilian security forces at the behest of local and state governments. As with most public statistical analysis regarding crime and policing, the failure to synthesize and make available this information for public consumption is a feature and not a bug.

  13. 14
    Saurs says:

    Also, and I mean no disrespect to Amp, but insisting that this toon’s ideas and language merely amount to an artificial imposition upon or comparison to past historical actors with a modern sense of justice erases the fact that these victims very much demanded and later expected not just private retribution and recompense by hired hands but also federal involvement in investigating these crimes and hunting down their perpetrators. The most obvious example being the Pinkertons. This is important not just for historical verisimilitude but also because it reveals that there is no and never was any crucial, unwavering “small government” spirit that singularly defined our tiny national history when it came to crimes affecting the franchised class and the security of their holdings, kin, friends, livestock, and wives. Land holders and industrialists, as well as the propertied middle classes, have never balked at any expansion of state or federal interference and oversight so long as it’s directed at petty thieves and low-level organized crime, which generally targeted ready cash or the odd bit of heirloom/upscale consumer good. Here as well as then we never see these types complaining that avaricious landlords, absentee sups, and rent collectors threatened the average working person’s life and ability to house and feed themselves and their own.

    Highway robbery targeted single women of a certain class and therefore expected to be in possession of a small family purse along with luxury goods easy to re-sell as well as a host of upper to middling travelers cautiously speeding through dangerous territories.

    Whereas in the present day those private individuals targeted by law enforcement eager to produce impressive clearance rates and reliable fines belong to the so-called lower classes, who absent federal protection remain disproportionately vulnerable to several other species of garden variety thievery—the payday loaners, the for-profit degree mills, the bailer, the prosecutor who will urge one to forgo 3 – 5 years of steady income and a guilty plea or a minimum 10 – 12 without either.

    The analogy somewhat fails because the highway robber became a myth and in some cases evolved into romantic folklore even as the government began to pursue and eliminate the practice. Precious few people nowadays valorize cops who plunder the homes of the dead, seize the till from legitimate transporters hired by marijuana retailers, molest the dead and dying, and confiscate cash from Bank-Anxious Sovereign Citizens of the darker complexion.

    I guess the most common feature between the two is the makeup of the average stagecoach villain—former confederate soldiers acting alone or in groups and possibly just continuing their own former wartime practice of shaking down all and sundry—compared with that of the cop taught from day one he is a soldier in an ongoing war against fellow Americans. The only catch is that the latter is (generally) discouraged from directly pocketing any bauble he comes across and is instead directed to secure a monthly quota of fines and citations to his department and city in exchange for a base salary and guaranteed overtime. Either way, the general public is not getting good value for money, right?

  14. 15
    Görkem says:

    “Sovereign Citizens of the darker complexion”

    Is that a thing? I was under the impression that Sovereign Citizens was an overwhelmingly white movement.

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