Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (2014–…): Season 1, Episode 20 - Civil Forfeiture - full transcript

John Oliver shows us how desperate the American law enforcement are to make money out of everyone.

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Welcome, welcome, welcome to "Last Week Tonight."

I'm John Oliver. Thank you for being with us.

Just time for a quick recap of the week,

and we begin in Hong Kong.

The former British colony now back under Chinese rule.

All week, protesters have been in the streets,

angry at the Chinese government's announcement

that they would be pre-selecting all candidates

for Hong Kong's 2017 elections.

And Hong Kong is in an odd situation.

It's a limited democracy inside a Communist country,

a setup that their own
constitution describes

as one country, two systems.

It's like the two girls,
one cup of governance,

with one girl having
a lot more control

over what happens to that cup.

The protests have been notable

not just for their size,
but also for their tone.

MALE REPORTER: This is one of
the most peaceful and polite

mass protests
I've ever covered.

There's an enormous amount
of housekeeping being done.

These are extremely
polite protesters.

There were all these signs that were
really, I thought,

really kind of cute
and really told you

about the Hong Kong

It would say something like, you
know, fighting for democracy,

you know, apologies
for the inconvenience.

Ooh. It seems Hong Kong may have
left the British empire,

but we clearly left
our manners behind.

We'd very much like
to rise up against

the great state of China but
certainly wouldn't want to cause

a mess while we're doing it.

Scrub a dub dub.
What? What?

The ingenuity of the protestors
has also been striking.

Not only have they repelled
pepper spray with umbrellas,

but when the government
cracked down on communication,

they found a workaround.

Protestors are using
an app called Fire Chat,

which was developed
here in San Francisco

for people who want to exchange
text messages via Bluetooth.

It's intended for use
at off-the-grid events,

things like Burning Man
or Coachella.

Yes, the Hong Kong protestors
have achieved the impossible,

making something
featuring the words

"Bluetooth," "Burning Man,"

and "Coachella"
not incredibly annoying.

Although, I do have to say, if
I was going to use any invention

from Burning Man to fight
the Chinese government,

I definitely would've gone with
the 8-armed metal fire beast.

Not even a Chinese tank is gonna
take on the pyroctopus.

Moving on.
Brazil went to the polls today.

They're voting in presidential
and local elections,

and turnout is expected
to be extremely high,

for one interesting reason.

obligatory in Brazil.

Yes, it's basically illegal
not to vote in Brazil.

A well-intentioned law.
The problem is,

when you make something
obligatory, people resent it.

And when they resent it,
they fuck with it,

which has led to
a proud tradition

of joke protest candidates
in Brazil, going back to 1959,

when Sao Paulo actually
elected a rhinoceros

to the city council.

Now, her ballots,

her ballots were
sadly disqualified

after they realized
what had happened,

so the second place candidate
took office--

a penguin in a bowler hat.

Now, the beauty is
candidates even get

free airtime on Brazilian TV,

whether they are
joke candidates or not,

so election season this year
has been spectacular,

thanks to candidates
like Jesus, Satan,

and of course, Osama bin Laden,

as well as multiple
President Obama impersonators,

one of whom looks almost
bizarrely not like Barack Obama.

Who is he trying to appeal to?

I'm really trying to win voters
who love Barack Obama

but who are also racist enough
to think that I look like him.

That's my demo.

But perhaps my favorite
candidate this year is this guy.

Paulo Batista, who seems
to be running on a platform

of having laser vision that
can transform the country,

and who ends the ad
by flying through space

for 20 solid seconds.

We have not edited this.

This is genuinely how
his campaign ad ends.

He's hurtling through space,

hypnotizing you
into voting for him.

And that is how you win over
undecided voters right there.

So let's all remember these.

Let's all remember these ads

the next time someone
complains to you

about the craziness of
America's political ads.

Because until we are choosing
between Jesus, Satan,

and a hypnotic Superman,

we are not as strange
as we think we are.

And finally this week,
there was some important news

from the world of sports.

All we know about the 2022
Winter Olympics is

they will be held in an interesting
and challenging place.

Norway has dropped out,
meaning the only two places

left in the running are Beijing
and a resort in Kazakhstan.

Oh, for fuck's sake, Norway,
how can you pull out?

The only reason we have
winter Olympics

is so you freakish snow people

can pick up your stupid
cross-country skiing medals.

And the problem is, neither
China nor Kazakhstan

are appealing alternatives.

Both have appalling
human rights records,

Beijing doesn't even have
a mountain suitable for skiing

within 50 miles of it,

and if they have it
in Kazakhstan,

we're all gonna
have to listen to

two weeks of Borat impressions

from America's
foremost douchebags.

"Is nice,
Winter Olympics?"

Yes, it's nice. Yes.

It's nice.
I get it.

And Norway is not alone in not
wanting to host the Olympics.

Ukraine, Poland, and Sweden have
also pulled out of their bids.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: The Associated
Press is calling 2022

the Olympics no one
seems to want.

Wherever it is, they'll be
televised by NBC.

We get--we get--you do--
You genuinely get the sense

if they just widened
the shot out just slightly,

you'd have seen Brian Williams
making the jerk-off hand motion.

Whatever it is, it will be
televised on NBC.

What am I doing here?
Get me out of this place.

So, just out of interest, what
happened with the Norwegian bid?

How did a country that
makes socks like these

suddenly get cold feet?

Well, it turns out

it might have something
to do with the IOC's

7,000 pages of
host nation demands,

including, and these
are all real,

a demand to be presented
to the king,

that the hotel's minibar must be
stocked with Coke products,

and that members
should be greeted

with a smiling, positive,
and welcoming staff,

and with seasonal
fruits and pastries

waiting for them
in their hotel rooms.

Incidentally, what the fuck

is a seasonal pastry
in Oslo in February?

I'm guessing it's something like
a herring with vanilla frosting.

Look, look, I get why Norway

doesn't want to deal
with all this.

But someone has to, or China or
Kazakhstan are going to win,

and that is why tonight,
I'm proud to say

we are officially
announcing our bid

to host the 2022
Winter Olympics

right here in the "Last Week
Tonight" studio.

Sure. Sure.

We're not a world-class
ski destination.

We're a TV show filmed
in a small studio

in New York's historic
carjacking district.

But we will meet all of
the IOC's demands.

First, here is your fridge
full of Coke products.

Look, there's even
Fresca in there--

the soda that's like having a
grapefruit shit in your mouth.

And I know that you
want to be greeted by

a contractually mandated smile.

Here you go.
Look at her.

She hates you,
and you'd barely know.

And sure, we may not have
the greatest facilities

for an international
winter-sports event,

but we do have exactly
as many ski mountains

as the entire city of Beijing,

and we also have this combined

ice rink, ski slope,
and bobsled track.

Also, we even have a second
fridge of Coke products.

This one has
Vanilla Coke in it.

It's like drinking
a Glade Plug-In.

And while we may not have
a king for you to meet,

we've got something even better:

a King Charles spaniel
dressed as a king.

He's a good boy.
He's a very good boy.

And don't worry about
Olympic mascots.

We already have two!

A Scottish unicorn
and a horny space gecko!

So come on, IOC!
Come on!

Hosting the Olympics here
makes exactly as much sense

as Beijing and Kazakhstan,

and we have a much better
human rights record

than at least one of those!

"Last Week Tonight"
Olympics 2022! Yes!

And now this.

MAN: And now "Last Week
Tonight" asks...

This week, Columbus Day.
How is this still a thing?

America has a lot of solemn
holiday traditions,

from saluting the quiet dignity
of the Irish

to proudly celebrating
our birth as a nation

to just spending quality time
with family at Thanksgiving.

But next week brings
perhaps the strangest

of American holidays--
Columbus Day,

which brings with it
the beloved annual traditions

of cheesy local commercials.

In 1492, Columbus sailed
the ocean blue

to celebrate Mattress Depot.

MAN: And Americans turning up to

an unexpectedly closed
post office

and going, "Oh, yeah,
it's Columbus Day. Shit."

This proud holiday commemorates

the landing of
Christopher Columbus

in the Bahamas in 1492,

beginning a long tradition
of obnoxious white people

visiting Caribbean islands and
acting like they own the place.

In school, American children

learn about
Christopher Columbus' life.

I will discover a
shortcut to India.

We'll call this part of
India San Salvador.

MAN: Of course, what they
tend not to learn

are the parts of Columbus' life

where he kidnapped
Native Americans

and sold them into slavery,

had his men
slice them to pieces,

and through disease and warfare

killed roughly half
the population of Haiti.

But in fairness, none of that
rhymes with "In 1492."

Nevertheless, Columbus became
famous for his discoveries.

Specifically, the discovery
that you can

discover a continent

with millions of people
already living on it

that had also been
visited by Vikings

around 500 years earlier.

In fact, many U.S.
states and cities

no longer recognize
Columbus Day,

raising the question, why do
the rest of us still do it?

Sure, it's a chance for Italians
to celebrate their heritage,

but there are so many other
heroes they could celebrate.

Why not Frank Sinatra Day?

He killed no Native Americans
that we know of.

Or Mario Batali.

If he's killed anyone,
it's through cheese.

Or Al Pacino Day, a day that
would probably start well

and end as an overblown
parody of itself.

She's got
a great ass!

MAN: So America's
least-favorite holiday

commemorates a murderous

whose most famous discovery
was a case of getting lost

and refusing to ask directions.

All of which is enough
to make you wonder,

Columbus Day.

Moving on.

Our main story tonight,
the police.

They protect us,
they serve us,

and they provide us
with an endless source

of TV show one-liners.

Rock, paper,
scissors, gun.

Well, I'm no
Serena Williams,

but I know
one thing.

It's all
in the wrist.

Who'd want to cut
your penis off?

Take a number.

OK, now, you laugh,
but admit it,

you want to watch the rest
of that episode right now.

Now, look, public trust
in the police

is one of the most vital
elements in a civilized society.

But for many Americans,
that trust has been undermined

by a procedure called
civil forfeiture.

Now, I know it sounds like

a Gwyneth Paltrow
euphemism for divorce.

But incredibly, it's
actually even worse than that.

Civil asset forfeiture is
really a mechanism by which

the state and federal government can seize people's property

without having to
convict them of a crime.

Most people can't afford to hire
a lawyer to challenge it.

It's really legalized robbery
by law enforcement.

And think about it.
That is a tough crime

to report to the police.

Give me a description of
what the guy looked like.

Well, to be honest,
he looked a lot like the guy

currently asking me
what the guy looked like.

And if you think
this sounds bad,

just wait until you
see how it looks,

because the "Washington Post"
recently published

a major investigation
featuring stories like that of

this man, who was driving from
Michigan to San Francisco

with $2,400 in cash that his dad
had lent him to start a new job,

when he was
pulled over in Nevada.

I gave him my license
and registration, and then,

as he was looking
at that information,

he asked me how much money
I was traveling with.

MALE REPORTER: Lee told him about the money
his dad gave him,

which he kept in the trunk.

LEE: He told me to turn on
my air vents on high

and roll up my windows
and get out of the car

because he was going to run
a canine around it.

MALE REPORTER: Dove didn't find
drugs, but he did find

the $2,400.

He said, "No, I'm going to
keep the money because

"I've concluded through
my investigation here

"that you are traveling
from Michigan to California

to purchase drugs."

Wow. There is so much wrong
there, including the fact that

any policeman who
genuinely believes

you need to travel from
Michigan to California

to purchase drugs

needs to be introduced
to the concept of

the University of Wisconsin,

OK? It's right there.

And the problem is, stories like
that are surprisingly common.

In fact, since 9/11,
under just one program,

police have taken $2.5 billion

in the course of over 61,000
seizures of cash alone

from people who--and this
is the mind-blowing part--

were not charged with a crime.

That is the sort of
police behavior

that we laugh at
other countries for,

along with their accents
and silly hats.

The way civil forfeiture
generally works is that

if the police believe they have
a preponderance of the evidence

that suggests your property was
or could be used in a crime,

they may confiscate it,
and it gets even weirder.

Many folks are unfamiliar with
the idea of civil forfeiture,

which is actually
a case brought against,

directly against
a piece a property,

where you don't need to be
proven guilty of a crime

for your goods to be taken away.

Exactly. You don't need
to be charged with a crime,

because it's not you that's
on trial, it's your stuff.

That's why these cases
have historically

had eye-catching names such as--
and all of these are real--

United States vs.
$8,850 in U.S. Currency,

United States vs.
An Article Consisting of

50,000 Cardboard Boxes
More or Less,

Each Containing One Pair
of Clacker Balls,

and United States
vs. Approximately

64,695 Pounds of Shark Fins,

which must've been
an amazing court case.

And do you see those shark fins
in the room right now?

Yes! There they are!
There they are!

Let the record show
the witness has pointed

at roughly 65,000 pounds
of shark fins.

Guilty, guilty.

And it's also worth noting

that your possessions generally
have fewer protections

under the law than you do.

Under civil forfeiture laws,

your property is guilty
until you prove it innocent.

How can that be possible?
At this point, I'm surprised

objects don't have their own
civil rights leader,

like Martin Scooter King
or Harvey Carton of Milk.

Now, to be fair,

civil forfeiture laws have had
some positive consequences.

They've crippled powerful
drug-trafficking organizations,

thwarted criminals, and returned
billions of dollars to victims.

The problem is that
many police departments

are allowed to keep most or all
of the money they seize.

And knowing that starts
to make you wonder

about the motivations of
these kinds of questions.

I'll take whatever
cash you got in there

and is that a Slurpee
in the cup holder?

What flavor?
Grape? Never mind.

Do you know what?
I will take it.

I'll take it.

The question "Do you have
cash in the vehicle?"

is surprisingly common
in traffic stops.

And the police are
prepared to overcome

any language barrier to ask it.

Tenny mucho mucho deniro
in su trucky trailer?

Let's be clear.

He just said, "Tenny mucho mucho
deniro in su trucky trailer,"

which sounds like an alien's
first attempt to communicate

with humans after crash-landing
in a Taco Bell.

In fact, let's all just
pause for a moment

to enjoy that sentence

because every single
word of it is funny.

First, "tenny,"
pronounced incorrectly.

"Mucho," one of the few words
he knows in Spanish.

"Mucho," repeated word.

"Deniro," a famed actor.

"In," a rapid shift to English.

"Su," rapid shift
back to Spanish.

"Trucky trailer"--
trucky trailer.

Now, it's magnificent.
That is magnificent.

It's a work of art.
Now, this happened in Tennessee,

a state where local
law enforcement authorities

are allowed to keep
as much as 100%

of the proceeds from
civil forfeitures.

A local news investigation found
multiple troubling cases of

people having money seized,
such as George Reby,

who had $20,000 seized after
he was stopped for speeding.

The police officer
argued it was drug money,

despite the fact that Reby
had a pretty good explanation.

REBY: I told him I had
active bids on eBay,

that I was trying
to buy a vehicle,

and they just
didn't want to hear it.

Reby had proof on his computer,

but the Monterey officer
drew up a damning affidavit,

citing his own training that "common people

do not carry this much
U.S. currency."

And did he tell you that he was trying
to buy a car?

He did.

But you did not include
that in your report.

If it's not in there,
I didn't put it in there.

So, why would you
leave that out?

I don't know.

What do you mean
you don't know?

I expect a better answer
from a police officer

than a 4-year-old
who just spilled

grape juice on the couch.

What happened to your drink?

I don't know.
I don't know.

If it's not in my glass,
it's not in my glass.

I don't know.
I don't know.

And look, it's not always
just a roadside stop.

In 2008, police raided

the Contemporary Art Institute
of Detroit

during its Funk Night because
it didn't have a liquor license,

seizing 44 cars,
under the argument that

"simply driving vehicles
to the location

of an unlawful sale of alcohol
was sufficient to seize a car."

Which means you may as well
seize any car

driven by any teenager
on prom night,

because they are all
going to Chad's place.

Chad's got the hookup.

We actually managed
to get the security video

of that Detroit raid,

and you can see
the police burst in

and arrest people with
the disco lights still twirling

in the single funkiest
shakedown in human history.

They each had to pay $900 to get
their cars out of the impound,

with the exception
of the one person

whose car was actually
stolen from the lot

to which it had been towed,

which seems like
the sort of thing

the police should be
investigating, if they weren't

too busy raiding
art gallery funk nights.

And at this point, you may be
thinking, well, sure,

the police departments
are getting

a lot of money
from seizing stuff,

but I'm sure
there are limitations

on how they can spend it.

Well, allow me to take you
to a 2012 Columbia, Missouri,

citizen police
review board hearing.

How do you decide
forfeiture funds?

You know, it's usually
based on a need.

Well, I take that back.

Discretion I'd
imagine you sign off on.

Yeah. There's some
limitations on it.

You know, it's--actually,

there's not really
on the forfeiture stuff.

Actually, there's basically
no limitations at all,

come to think of it.

We're essentially gods.
We're gods.

We're like the anti-Spiderman--
great power, no responsibility.

I can't believe this
hasn't come up before.

And look, his honesty
was not over.

It's--we just usually
base it on something that

would be nice to have,

that we can't get in the budget,
for instance.

We try not to use it for things
that we need to depend on

because we need to go ahead
and have those purchased.

But it's kind of like
pennies from heaven, you know.

It gets you a toy or something
that you need,

is the way we
typically look at it.

That's right.
That's right.

They buy toys
with pennies from heaven.

Although you should know,
those pennies may not be

falling from heaven, so much as
from the pockets of the people

they're holding
upside down and shaking.

And in terms of what kind of
toys police departments buy,

that really depends.

For instance, in Massachusetts,

one D.A.'s office used
forfeiture money

to buy their own Zamboni,

even though auditors noted,
"We could not determine

"where this machine was located

or the law enforcement
purpose it serves."

Although that last one
is obvious.

Just think about it.
If you are robbing a bank,

and the police pull up
in a Zamboni,

you're gonna
give yourself up

just out of sheer curiosity.

And in Texas, in Texas,
one D.A.'s office

had an even more
imaginative idea.

And I'll let a concerned
citizen at a public hearing

tell you all about it.

That's true.
In Texas,

they bought
a margarita machine.

They were literally
using this money

as their own personal
slush fund.

They were literal--
it's perfect.

The analogy is perfect.

And, look, look, if the police
need money for equipment,

we should clearly be
giving it to them.

And if they need money
for margarita machines,

they should be fucking
paying for that themselves.

But these civil forfeiture laws

have warped law enforcement
priorities and perception.

And nowhere is that
more clear than Philadelphia.

officials over a 10-year period

have seized more than 1,000
houses, about 3,300 vehicles,

and $44 million in cash
in civil forfeitures.

Holy shit.

Usually when someone describes
something taking

3,000 vehicles
and 1,000 houses,

they're talking about
a fucking hurricane.

One of those houses belonged
to the Sourovelis family,

and the reason for that seizure

seems a little harsh
from the outside.

FEMALE REPORTER: Police arrested
their 22-year-old son Yanni

on drug charges,
$40 worth of heroin,

and claim he was selling drugs
out of the home.

Police and prosecutors
came armed with a lawsuit

against the house itself.

Exactly, because remember,
the parents aren't on trial,

the house is,
which is clearly ridiculous.

The only drug-containing house
that needs a lawsuit against it

is this one.

You're on the edge.
You're on the edge, House!

You're this close!

You're this close
to losing your job!

You're good, damn it.
You're good, House!

You're close, House, you're
close, but you're good.

But you're so close!

But you're so good, House.

And once their house
was seized,

the Sourovelises
got to experience

the final problem
with civil forfeiture.

Recourse can be
incredibly difficult.

Here in Philadelphia,

if you have your property taken,

you can come here to city hall

and go to courtroom 478
and try to get it back.

Problem is, the people that are
taking the belongings are also

the ones calling the shots
inside the courtroom.

The Sourovelises showed up
to courtroom 478

ready to plead their case
to a judge.

Instead, they say, they faced

a prosecutor from
the D.A.'s office.

That's right.
Their first step in challenging

the police seizing their
property was in a courtroom

without a judge
hearing their case.

How can you even still
call that a courtroom?

If you take all the doctors
out of a hospital

and replace them with otters,
that's no longer a hospital.

It's better, it's much better,
but it's not a hospital.

I don't know what--I love it,
but it's not a hospital.

In fact, recourse
is so difficult

that most people who've lost
stuff to civil forfeiture

just choose to walk away
rather than fight.

So at this point,
it should seem obvious

that the bad may be
starting to outweigh the good

with civil forfeiture laws.

So we've really got
two choices.

We can take a hard look
at reforming them

or, at the very least,
we need to reform

our network cop dramas to make
them a lot more representative

of what is actually happening.

ANNOUNCER: Coming soon...

Get ready to go inside

the thrilling world
of civil forfeiture.

Knock, knock.
Freeze. Police.

Hands on the ground.
Get off the sofa.

WOMAN: Keep them where
we can see them.

You're under arrest.

What for? You guys
got nothing on me.

Not you.
Cell phone.

ANNOUNCER: Coming this fall--
a procedural about

law enforcement's
shadiest procedure.

Rough night, huh?

Well, it's about
to get a lot rougher.

What's 2,500 in cash

doing hanging out
in somebody's glove box? Huh?

Answer me.

ANNOUNCER: These cops are
determined, and they won't stop

until they get everything,
every last thing.

You're dirty, right?
Drug deal, guns, what is it?

I can't help you if
you don't talk to me!

I'm going to beat
the shit out you.

Detective Forfacci,
Civil Forfeiture Unit.

ANNOUNCER: Brace yourself for
heart-pounding takedowns.

Resisting arrest.
Send in backup.

Send in backup.

ANNOUNCE: The defendants
are inanimate,

but the drama is anything but.

Frisk him.

There's a pile of
silver dollars next door

that says you did it.

You will lose
and I will win.

Stay on the streets too long,

the city leaves a bad
taste in your mouth.

Hey, I know
what'll get it out.

I'm gonna crumple you up

till you look like
a cat's asshole.

That's our show!
We'll be back in two weeks!

Thank you so much for watching.
Good night.

This is nothing more than a,

it's kind of a tap dance.

Speaking of which, here.


Do you want anything
from the vending machine?

You think I care about you?

If it were up to me,

I'd take a wad of gum,

stick it right on Andrew
Jackson's smug fucking face,

crumple you up, stuff you
in a pair of old Dockers,

throw you in a washing machine
on permanent press,

then hand you off to a toddler

with a pair of scissors
and a marker

and tell him to make confetti.

Well, looks like I'm the one

that tennys mucho, mucho deniro
in my trucky trailer.