A recent survey conducted by YouGov shows an overwhelming percentage of Americans believe the government should be able to seize cash or property only if the owner is convicted of a crime. The results of the survey are the latest to show that Americans believe reforms are necessary to reform the justice system, some of which are detailed in a FreedomWorks’ publication, A Look Inside Justice Reform Polling.
The YouGov survey, which was released near the end of August, reveals that 72 percent of Americans, including 62 percent of Republicans, are not familiar with the term "civil asset forfeiture" and 40 percent believe the government can "permanently seize" cash or property only when the owner has been "charged with and convicted of a crime." Of course, civil asset forfeiture proceedings in most states and the federal government do not require a criminal conviction, let alone formal charges, before cash or property is forfeited to the government. This raises serious concerns about violations of due process rights protected by the Fifth Amendment, as well as most state constitutions.
The survey finds only 7 percent of Americans believe that forfeiture should be allowed absent criminal charges. Another 9 percent said charges should at least be filed before the government can move forward with forfeiture proceeds. Importantly, 71 percent of Americans, including 77 percent of Republicans, believe forfeiture should be allowed only if the person from whom the cash or property is being taken has been charged with and convicted of a crime.
YouGov also asked about the profit incentive created by civil asset forfeiture. In most states and the federal government, law enforcement can keep either part of or all the proceeds from forfeitures. This can create situations where law enforcement, with an interest to self-fund, focus on raising revenue to fund their operations. It can become a distraction from their primary responsibility of preserving and protecting the communities they serve.
Only 13 percent of Americans believe law enforcement should be able to keep the proceeds from forfeitures, while 39 percent believe these funds should go directly to state’s general fund, where it can be appropriated in whichever manner legislators deem appropriate, and 27 percent believe the money should be diverted for some other unspecified purpose. The survey finds a total 69 percent of Republicans say the proceeds should be directed to a state’s general fund or set aside for some other purpose.
The results of the YouGov survey are similar to a separate survey released by Rasmussen Reports in October 2014, which found that "70 percent of adults, including 72 percent of self-identified Republicans, believe that a criminal conviction should be required before law enforcement seizes property believed to be connected to a crime."
The findings of both make it clear: Americans support the due process rights recognized and protected by the Fifth Amendment. As reforms continue to work their way through state legislatures and, perhaps, in Congress, lawmakers should take notice. Too innocent people have seen their property taken from them, and they have had to mount costly and lengthy legal fights to get it back. It is time for lawmakers to fix civil asset forfeiture laws to protect innocent people from government overreach.