Civil asset forfeiture is becoming a hot topic in the media. New stories of abuse, where innocent people’s property and/or cash is seized by overzealous law enforcement, come out on a regular basis. FreedomWorks has highlighted several of these stories, including Joseph Rivers and Charles Clarke, both of whom lost their life savings of $16,000 and $11,000, respectively, through civil asset forfeiture.
Neither Rivers nor Clarke were charged with any drug crime, but under federal civil asset forfeiture laws, their due process rights are denied and their property rights ignored. In a perversion of justice, they now have to prove their property is innocent not guilty. Though these two examples fall under federal law, almost every states lacks constitutional protections for innocent property owners.
Currently, 36 states put the burden of proof on the property owner, and these property owners do not have to be charged with a crime, according to FreedomWorks’ recent publication, Civil Asset Forfeiture: Grading the States. Only eight states make the government prove a crime was committed. And, unfortunately, just four states require a criminal conviction before property can be forfeited by the government. Two of those states — New Mexico and Montana — enacted laws requiring a criminal conviction in during their most recent legislative sessions.
The Wyoming Legislature passed a similar bill, but it, but it was vetoed by Gov. Matt Mead (R-Wyo.) and lawmakers declined to override the action. Pennsylvania is currently considering legislation, SB 869 and HB 508, that would require a criminal conviction, while the Michigan Senate is considering a House-passed package of eight bills to protect innocent property owners and promote transparency.
So how does the public feel about civil asset forfeiture? An October 2014 survey conducted by Rasmussen Reports offers some insight. The poll 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.
Most states and the federal government provide law enforcement with a perverse profit motive to seize property. Twenty-four (24) states and the federal government allow the seizing law enforcement agency to keep 100 percent of the proceeds from forfeitures, while 15 allow the seizing agency to keep up to 50 percent or more of the funds. Additionally, through the Justice Department’s Equitable Sharing Program, state and local law enforcement that send seized property to the federal government for "adoption" can receive up to 80 percent of the proceeds.
Before New Mexico enacted its strong reform law, a city attorney from Las Cruces, who called seized items "little goodies," opined, "We could be czars. We could own the city. We could be in the real estate business." The sheriff in Missouri said that proceeds from civil asset forfeiture are "kind of like pennies from heaven."
A plurality, 42 percent, of respondents to the Rasmussen Reports survey believe that most law enforcement agencies seize property because of this perverse profit motive.
Lawmakers in states currently considering civil asset forfeiture reform should listen to the public and enact strong protections to protect the property and due process rights of innocent Americans adversely affected by abuse of civil asset forfeiture. While there are legitimate concerns about law enforcement funding, these concerns should be addressed by state legislatures and local governments, not through proceeds obtained in a way that undermines constitutional protections.
Protecting innocent individuals’ property from this gross form of government overreach should be a top priority for lawmakers at both the state and federal levels.