In the US, Americans arrested for crimes are considered innocent until the state proves them guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. They may be surprised to discover that their property gets held to a different standard — and has for the last few decades. Civil forfeiture of property to government has become a billion-dollar business, and it’s only getting bigger, as Bob Ewing from Institute for Justice explains at Big Government:

As a 77-year-old woman living alone with multiple medical problems, Margaret left her Pennsylvania home unlocked so her neighbors could regularly check on her.  One day while the police were chasing alleged drug dealers through her neighborhood, they all ran through Margaret’s house.  The dealers dropped some of their stash on Margaret’s floor, in plain sight.

Instead of apologizing to Margaret for the traumatic experience, the government seized her house.

Under civil forfeiture laws, Margaret’s property—her house—was guilty until she could prove it innocent to get it back.  And that’s not all.  As it turns out, most state and federal laws allow the government to keep the property they take through civil forfeiture.  So authorities have a big incentive to pursue property over justice.

Predictably, abuse is rampant:

  • In Louisiana, police were caught stealing innocent people’s property by making up crimes that never happened.  They used the proceeds to fund ski trips to Aspen.
  • In Texas, a government official was caught pumping forfeiture funds into his re-election campaign.
  • In Nebraska, officials stole over $124,000 from a resident without ever charging, let alone convicting, him of a crime.
  • In Missouri, authorities were caught turning forfeitures over to the federal government in order to avoid a legal requirement that proceeds go to schools.  That way, both groups could split the proceeds without having to share any with the children that were supposed to get the money.

Unfortunately, these are not isolated incidents.  Civil forfeiture is now a nationwide epidemic.  A new report by the Institute for Justice found that the federal government is now holding over a billion dollars in assets seized through civil forfeiture.

The effort started as a way to make arrests for minor crimes sting more, such as seizing cars used while soliciting prostitutes, and so on.  It turned into a runaway train, or more accurately a runaway gravy train, when law enforcement agencies began realizing they could use the money to shore up budgets.

The billion-dollar figure only applies to the federal government, by the way.  Not every state has a reporting system for civil forfeiture, which makes it difficult to get the true scope.  IJ did rate the states on their protection of property rights; Minnesota, for instance, gets a C.  We average over a million dollars in forfeitures each year, but of late those numbers have risen to $3 million and $4 million.  Only one state, Maine, got an A, which means that the presumption of innocence applies to property and the state has to prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to keep seized property.  Two states (Vermont and North Dakota) get Bs.  Eighteen states get Cs — and the rest get greedy.

It is long past time to stop the seizure of property from citizens without proving actual guilt in court.  No one should have their life, liberty, or property seized by the government without due process.