The presumption of innocence is a fundamental principle of the American legal system. When someone is accused of a crime, the burden is rightfully on the government to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt before a punishment is meted out.
But another area of the law, known as civil asset forfeiture, allows law enforcement and prosecutors to bring cases against property, rather than individuals, believed to be connected to a crime. The property owner may never be convicted, or even , of a crime, but their property can still be taken away in forfeiture proceedings where they must prove the innocence of their property.
Federal law, and most state statutes, effectively deny due process for innocent property owners and create a perverse profit motive, as law enforcement is allowed to keep a substantial portion of the proceeds from forfeitures. Thankfully, over the last few years, some state legislatures have enacted reforms to protect law-abiding citizens from civil asset forfeiture abuse.
FreedomWorks has released a new working paper, Civil Asset Forfeiture: Grading the States, to inform our community of 7 million members on the unfairness of federal and state civil asset forfeiture laws. We recommend four principles that state lawmakers should consider as they approach reform.