Respect for private property and the right to due process – two of the fundamental pillars of the US Constitution – are being increasingly trampled and violated by the federal and state governments today. Police departments across America have been perversely incentivized and empowered to seize more and more money, cars, houses, businesses, and other property from innocent Americans who have not been charged with a crime.
Big government Republicans (and Democrats) will tell you that these forfeiture laws are for deterring and punishing drug trafficking criminals, Mafia kingpins, and terrorists. What they won’t tell you is that only 13 percent of all forfeiture is criminal forfeiture and that 87 percent of all police forfeiture is a civil forfeiture. What this means is that 87 percent of all property seized is seized from citizens who have not been charged with any crime whatsoever.
In 1986, the Department of Justice brought in $93.7 million from federal forfeitures. In 2014, that amount was up to $4.5 billion – a 4,667 percent increase.
In 25 states and at the federal level, police are able to keep 100 percent of forfeiture proceeds. These proceeds are allowed to go towards nearly anything – salaries, vehicles, vacations, equipment, workplace upgrades – and this creates a perverse profit incentive for police.
Nearly all spending of forfeiture spending is hidden from public view, which makes it especially difficult to hold police departments accountable. Forfeiture laws are very lax on how law enforcement is allowed to spend seized money and report that spending. Due to this, most of the time we have no idea how law enforcement is spending the money they have legally stolen.
A couple of the most egregious instances of civil forfeiture include a Christian band manager who had raised $50,000 dollars for an orphanage and had all of it taken because the government views anyone carrying large amounts of cash as suspicious. In another instance, police seized dozens of cars of people attending an art institute event, because the institute didn’t have a liquor license. Sadly there are numerous instances like these taking place across the country.
Supporters of civil asset forfeiture argue that it is necessary to combat cartels, terrorists, and well-funded criminal enterprises. It’s hard to take this argument seriously, as the average civil forfeiture seizure is less than $600. And then when you consider that 87 percent of these seizures are performed against individuals who haven’t committed a crime, it begins to appear more like police are preying on everyday lower- and middle-class Americans who simply don’t have the time and money to navigate a complex and expensive legal system.
Civil forfeiture is nothing more than legalized theft, where police departments across America are incentivized to confiscate the property of ordinary citizens. Civil forfeiture goes against the idea of “innocent until proven guilty,” and instead assumes law-abiding individuals to be criminals. Civil forfeiture needs to be abolished immediately, as it is empowering law enforcement to pursue their enrichment at the expense of innocents, rather than pursuing justice.