Civil asset forfeiture has come into the mainstream in recent months, first when Attorney General Jeff Sessions announced controversial expansions to the program, and then again last week when he was forced to roll back some of his hardline stances in the face of withering congressional opposition.
Civil forfeiture may sound innocuous, and few people still know exactly what it is, but the term hides an ugly practice that has corroded the administration of justice in the United States and turned the police of many jurisdictions into thuggish shakedown artists.
What is this Madness?
Essentially, civil forfeiture laws give police the right to seize assets if they suspect they are being used for illegal purposes. “Suspect” is the operative word here. They do not need due process or a court ruling; they can deprive a citizen of their property purely on the suspicion of wrongdoing. Whether a supporter of left or right, anyone with a sense of decency or value for the rule of law should find such behavior repugnant.
Assets seized include everything from cash, cars, and even houses. Police can impound your vehicle, take all the cash in your car, and lock you out of your own home all without a criminal charge being laid against an individual person. The legal chicanery used to prop up this regime relies on the notion that the “charge” is being laid against the property itself (a philosophically dubious proposition indeed). The result is seizure of vast amounts of personal property from people who never face any legal action themselves. Indeed, one report found that 81 percent of assets seized across the country belonged to people who never faced prosecution or formal charge of any kind.
Perverse Laws Make for Perverse Behavior
The low burden of evidence necessary to undertake a civil forfeiture proceeding is frighteningly low. Police can seize assets merely on suspicion. Once seized, owners can only get their property back through legal action of their own. In other words, their property is guilty until proven innocent. Absurd or no, the cost of fighting police seizures is no laughing matter: Unable to find counsel or lacking the funds necessary to undertake a lengthy legal action, thousands of innocent Americans have been bereft of their rightful property.
Meanwhile, police forces across the country have been enjoying a fruits of their ill-gotten gains. As the police forces that seize property under civil forfeiture laws get to keep the lion’s share of what they take in, many departments have been able to finance pet projects and pad paychecks with citizens’ money. That is an obviously perverse incentive. Any time a police force is encouraged to view itself as standing apart from the public they serve, it causes a severe disconnect.
As keepers of the peace and civic order, police are meant to be fair dealers and agents of everyone. Admittedly, that is rarely the case in practice. But with civil forfeiture laws the way they are, every citizen represents a potential payday. The most unscrupulous police departments have occasionally been called out for their misdeeds, but the perverse incentives continue to breed corruption across the country.
Restoring the Sanctity of Property
Civil forfeiture is a tragic example of how supposed gaps in constitutional protections can be used to circumscribe or circumvent enumerated rights. It relies on the assumption that people’s property rights are not sacrosanct and can be forfeited without due process. That premise makes a mockery of both the protection of private property, a bedrock of our republican system, and the presumption of innocence.
The evils of civil forfeiture are being brought once more into the light of day. Now is the time to fight once again to restore sacred liberties that belong to all Americans. We cannot allow fear and greed to rule us, or to compromise rights that form the core of a free and prosperous society.
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