The disturbing use of civil forfeiture by many cities and states to line their coffers has been on the rise, and Last Week Tonight took up the topic and framed it the only way most of us can understand: In the guise of a Law & Order episode.
As The New Yorker put it in an excellent piece last year, "In general, you needn’t be found guilty to have your assets claimed by law enforcement; in some states, suspicion on par with “probable cause” is sufficient. Nor must you be charged with a crime, or even accused of one. Unlike criminal forfeiture, which requires that a person be convicted of an offense before his or her property is confiscated, civil forfeiture amounts to a lawsuit filed directly against a possession, regardless of its owner’s guilt or innocence." John Oliver emphasized the absurdity of this, noting one 1986 case, "The United States v. Eight Thousand Eight Hundred and Fifty Dollars ($8,850) in United State Currency."
After going through the Kafka-esque reality of civil forfeiture, Oliver introduces Law & Order: Civil Asset Forfeiture Unit at the 14-minute mark, complete with Law & Order: Criminal Intent alums Jeff Goldblum and Kathryn Erbe; Law & Order: Special Victims Unit's Robert John Burke; John Fiore, reprising his role as Detective Tony Profaci from Law & Order; and the Chung-Chung sound:
Many property owners are unable to afford lawyers to fight these claims, but in one instance, a Bronx man got his $4,800 back with help from the Bronx Defenders—but not exactly his $4,800. His money was deposited into the NYPD pension fund soon after its was seized; when he was given a check a year later, that money came from the city's general fund (a.k.a. taxpayer money). Some lawmakers have expressed interest in reforming the practice, but the allure remains, since it's so easy.