By Logan Albright | Watchdog.org
The issue of civil asset forfeiture is getting a lot of attention these days, and with good reason. This centuries-old law enforcement procedure is based on British laws that predate the American Revolution, and which do not reflect the principles embodied in the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Here’s how it works: If police or federal agents suspect that property has been involved in the commission of a crime, they can simply take it. No charges need be filed against the property owner, no trial must occur. In effect, the property itself is accused of a crime, and it’s up to the owner to prove its innocence if they ever wants to see it again.
Police primarily use this tool against drug dealers, and supporters of the program argue it is both necessary and effective at cracking down on drug crime. However, there are a number of problems with this analysis. First, regardless of your opinion on the drug war, the lack of due process is a concern to anyone who cares about the Constitution.
The Fifth Amendment declares that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process. The seizure of goods merely on a suspicion, and with a presumption of guilty until proven innocent, is blatantly in violation of this clause. Everyone deserves a fair trial and the ability to face his accuser, but with civil asset forfeiture, the victims frequently have no recourse outside of a lengthy and expensive court battle, all to regain property that was taken from them without any proper legal procedures.
Second, the practice does not only affect bad people doing bad things. There have been many documented cases of obviously innocent people who have their bank accounts drained, or their money taken right out of their hands, despite having done absolutely nothing wrong. The problem is complicated by the fact that, in most states, police departments can use the money they seize to fund their own operating expenses, introducing a profit motive into forfeiture abuse.
Fortunately, a number of states have begun to recognize this problem and are begin to fight back. In recent months, both Montana and New Mexico have passed laws requiring a criminal conviction before assets can be forfeited in this way.
Other states, such as Michigan, Texas, Florida, and Maryland are also considering legislation to curb the abusive practice. The fact that so many lawmakers are starting to pay attention to this formerly obscure issue is encouraging for those of us who care about private property and the rule of law.
However, because of the political capital held by sheriffs’ offices in many states, local reforms have proven difficult. Moreover, a process called “equitable sharing” allows states to circumvent their own laws by bringing in federal agents and splitting the proceeds from seized assets. Fortunately, federal lawmakers have not been blind to the problem, and Sen. Rand Paul has introduced the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration Act to curb asset forfeiture abuses nationwide.
It’s rare that an issue can bridge party lines and unite people across the country, but civil asset forfeiture is so obviously dangerous to liberty, so easily abused, and the stories of its victims so relatable to the average person, that we can all imagine ourselves targeted unjustly. It’s easy to feel the moral outrage of someone whose hard earned dollars are taken from them without a trial or even a formal accusation. This is where we see how effective grassroots pressure and public opinion really are. Two states have already seen the light. It only remains to be seen how many more will follow.