Civil Forfeiture: Legal Looting?

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Would you believe that there’s a country where police and prosecutors can seize your property—your home, your car, your cash—without ever convicting you of a crime? Indeed, without ever even charging you with a crime?

Believe it.

Civil forfeiture, as the practice is called, is alive and well–and not in some far-flung place where civil rights are routinely squashed. Law enforcement agents in this country—yes, in the United States of America, where rights and justice are supposed to be guaranteed in the Constitution—are increasingly using this legal loophole for financial gain. Apparently crime does pay. And the criminals aren’t the ones getting rich.

The Background

Civil forfeiture isn’t new. In fact, it’s been on the books for hundreds of years. And, in theory anyway, it makes sense: Confiscate any property connected—or merely thought to be connected–to criminal activity. That means seize the bank account of a drug lord, the business through which a mobster launders money, or the car where a prostitute entertains her clients. The proceeds from these assets can then be channeled back into law enforcement. It’s a win-win: Criminals are caught and anything they’ve garnered from their illegal escapades goes back to the community.

Sounds all well and good. But civil forfeiture is problematic. Unlike criminal cases, where someone is presumed innocent until proven guilty, property doesn’t carry the same rights. With civil forfeiture, there is no presumption of innocence. Property can be seized and held in what is known in legalese as “probable cause.” And the owner of the property need never even be present when the alleged crime was committed.

Civil forfeiture really started gaining in popularity in the 1970s and ’80s, when the war on drugs got serious. It’s been increasing ever since, maybe because of budget constraints (proceeds from civil forfeiture can pay police salaries and buy new squad cars, among other things), or maybe not. Regardless of the reasons, the uptick is real: In 1986, $93.7 million dollars worth of goods and property had been forfeited; by 2012, that number reached a staggering $4.2 billion.

The Cases

Who doesn’t want to see the leader of a drug cartel go down, his boats, cars, homes and cash seized and sold, with the profits going toward police and government agencies operating with shoestring budgets? But while civil forfeiture can punish criminals, it can also punish the innocent. Consider these recent cases:

  • An elderly Pennsylvania couple (did we mention the husband was recuperating from cancer?) has their home of nearly 50 years seized after police arrest their son for selling marijuana from the home’s front porch. 
  • A Massachusetts man is told he will lose the motel he’s owned for 14 years because some of the guests were arrested on drug charges. This despite the fact that the owner was not accused of any wrongdoing, had cooperated fully with the police and had taken steps to prevent crime on his property. The owner got legal representation; a judge threw out the case, ultimately saying there was a “gross exaggeration” of the evidence.
  • Guests at a Detroit museum gala have their cars seized when police storm the building where they were partying. Seems as though the museum didn’t have the proper permits for an after-hours soiree.

Just because property is seized doesn’t mean its owners have no recourse. But fighting for it back often involves hiring lawyers—and they don’t come cheap. Even if a person can afford the representation, if legal fees end up costing more than the property is worth, well, do the math. It doesn’t always make sense to fight for its return.

The Moral

I’ve worked hard—very hard—for everything I’ve earned. By a lot of standards I haven’t really amassed all that much. But it’s mine. And I’d like to keep it that way.

There’s something inherently wrong about law-abiding citizens being forced to fork over their money and property—things they’ve often put their blood, sweat and tears into—to subsidize the police and government offices that our tax dollars are already funding. Prosecute the drug dealer. Seize whatever he gained from his criminal activity. But take his buddy’s business because that’s where he decided to set up shop while the owner was too distracted trying to make a clean living. It gives me pause. And I wonder why it hasn’t given the legislature some pause too.

Legal looting? Kind of seems that way. While civil forfeiture has a place on our law books, I am not sure it should be at the expense of upstanding citizens.