Civil asset forfeiture, a process by which government is allowed to seize the property of Americans without even needing to charge them with a crime, is fundamentally contrary to America’s founding principles. Yet, as a new report from the Institute for Justice notes, the practice remains widespread with often inadequate constraints.
Law enforcement agencies engage in the practice of civil asset forfeiture when they believe, in theory, that particular properties are somehow linked to a criminal offense.
Since civil asset forfeiture takes place independent of the criminal justice system, however, law enforcement agencies that move to seize property or assets don’t need to secure a criminal conviction or even file charges to pursue such seizures.
Civil asset forfeiture has been a key tool in the War on Drugs and is most commonly promoted as a means of taking on major drug traffickers.
In practice, though, civil asset forfeiture tends to yield stories like that of Kevin McBride, a Tucson handyman.
As told by Reason magazine, McBride’s Jeep was seized by Arizona law enforcement officials after his girlfriend used the Jeep to sell $25 of marijuana to an undercover officer.
The disproportionate response and harm of such seizure to McBride for a profoundly petty offense he took no part in aside, Arizona law enforcement officials decided to fight to seize the vehicle even after the charges against McBride’s girlfriend were dropped.
Remarkably, Deputy Pima County Attorney Kevin Krejci wrote a letter to McBride telling him that “an outright return of the vehicle is inappropriate in this case,” and said the state would pursue forfeiture unless McBride agreed to pay the county $1,900.
Fortunately for McBride, the Goldwater Institute has come to his defense to fight this absurd demand.
As the Institute for Justice recently noted in its third edition of the groundbreaking report “Policing for Profit,” though, “aside from a few high-profile cases, forfeiture often does not target drug kingpins or big-time financial fraudsters.” Cash seizures across the country tend to be in the low-hundreds or low-thousands.
Given the complexities that go into fighting a civil asset forfeiture case, with often low-income people left facing the daunting prospect of going to court with the government over often small amounts, it’s no surprise that many people just give up.
Yet, over the last two decades, more than $68.8 billion of cash and assets have been seized this way.
As IJ has noted, one of the big problems with civil asset forfeiture is that it can skew law enforcement priorities toward cases where there are greater potentials for seizures.
IJ’s top-line recommendation for states and the federal government is straightforward: civil asset forfeiture should be abolished. If seizures are necessary and just, law enforcement should at least get a criminal conviction first. That should be an obvious first step.
Rep. Justin Amash, L-Michigan, has proposed legislation to abolish the practice. “The government cannot lawfully jettison the rights of the accused for the sake of convenience and profit,” his bill reads.
We agree. While there are more intermediate steps states and the federal government can take, from raising the bar for seizures to being more transparent about forfeiture activity, civil asset forfeiture is fundamentally inconsistent with what America is supposed to stand for.