Civil Asset Forfeiture: “You Don’t Own That”

Did you know that the government can seize your property – cash, jewelry, cars  – and even your home – without charging or convicting you with a crime?

The Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments prohibit the governmental takings of life, liberty or property without due process of law.

But the government has found a way around that.

In civil asset forfeiture cases the government proceeds directly against your property.  An individual doesn’t need to be convicted of a crime, so criminal procedure does not apply. And because the forfeiture is against the property, the owner is a third party claimant in related court proceedings. (source)

Here’s an example of how this works:

A police officer pulls a car over for speeding.  The officer thinks he smells marijuana and seizes money and perhaps other property from the vehicle. The officer (or other law enforcement agent) writes and signs a statement or affidavit explaining the situation and reasons for the seizure of the property.   That statement is used to show the courts the link between the alleged criminal behavior and the seized property.

This amounts to true “highway robbery” or roadside piracy.

Because the case is against the property and not the owner, court cases have names like these:

United States v. $124,700 in U.S. Currency

State v. One 2012 Mercedes Benz

United States v. One Gold Necklace

Property, of course, does not have constitutional rights.  As Sarah Stillman explains in her New Yorker article Taken:

There’s no right to an attorney and, in most states, no presumption of innocence. Owners who wish to contest often find that the cost of hiring a lawyer far exceeds the value of their seized goods. Washington, D.C., charges up to twenty-five hundred dollars simply for the right to challenge a police seizure in court, which can take months or even years to resolve.

In 2012, the Justice Department took in a record of nearly $4.2 billion in forfeitures.

Asset forfeiture creates huge incentives for law enforcement officers to “police for profit”.  The money can be used for salaries and to purchase advanced equipment.

A program called equitable sharing allows police to take property from citizens under federal civil forfeiture law instead of the applicable state law. This is a great deal for law enforcement because federal law makes civil forfeiture both relatively easy and rewarding – as much as 80 percent of  the proceeds are returned to the seizing agency.

Investigations have revealed what some proceeds have been used to acquire:

  • in Camden County, Ga., a $90,000 Dodge Viper for the county’s DARE program;
  • in Colorado, bomber jackets for the Colorado State Patrol;
  • in Austin, Texas, running gear for the police department;
  • in Fulton County, Ga., football tickets for the district attorney’s office,
  • in Webb County, Texas, $20,000 for TV commercials for the district attorney’s re-election campaign;
  • in Kimble County, Texas, $14,000 for a “training seminar” in Hawaii for the staff of the district attorney’s office;
  • in Albany, N.Y., over $16,000 for food, gifts and entertainment for the police department.

If a state has laws that better protect its residents or prevent law enforcement from directly benefiting from forfeitures, agencies can apply federal law.

According to The Institute for Justice, equitable sharing payments from the U.S. Department of Justice to state and local law enforcement doubled from about $200 million to $400 million from 2000 – 2008.

In the following video, John Stossel discusses the practice of civil asset forfeiture with Scott Bullock from the Institute for Justice and Radley Balko from Reason Magazine.

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