Video: Time to end civil forfeiture?

posted at 2:35 pm on August 2, 2010 by Ed Morrissey

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.


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Didn’t you get the memo from Pete Stark, Ed? You old ninny.

gryphon202 on August 2, 2010 at 2:38 PM

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.

Add this to the list why the land is in anarchy already. She is now not a land of laws, but of men.

Schadenfreude on August 2, 2010 at 2:39 PM

Another example — there are more wolves in government than shepherds.

cthulhu on August 2, 2010 at 2:39 PM

But, the police are heroes ! /s

Jeff2161 on August 2, 2010 at 2:40 PM

What if we keep the law, and rebate the money to the citizens!

faraway on August 2, 2010 at 2:40 PM

What if we rebated all SEC and EEOC fines to the citizens? Why should the Federal government keep those fines?

faraway on August 2, 2010 at 2:44 PM

Geeze! This is just excellent news, isn’t it?

Damned government, and it’s corruption.

capejasmine on August 2, 2010 at 2:44 PM

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Yeah, that’s what that amendment was about.

Count to 10 on August 2, 2010 at 2:44 PM

What if we keep the law, and rebate the money to the citizens!

faraway on August 2, 2010 at 2:40 PM

So theft by the government is ok as long as you get your cut?

Sammy316 on August 2, 2010 at 2:45 PM

I’m familiar with a case where police took a car because they found chewing gum in it that was not in its brand-name wrapper, only in the wax paper wrapper; therefore they couldn’t be quite sure what it was.

Grandpop was driving, gramndmom was in the passenger seat, and two grandkids were in the back. They had been pulled over for a tailamp or something equally as innocuous. This was in the mid-eighties.

Akzed on August 2, 2010 at 2:45 PM

Yes.

Skywise on August 2, 2010 at 2:45 PM

It’s just another way to redistribute the wealth.

Disturb the Universe on August 2, 2010 at 2:49 PM

I’ve never understood how the 14th Amendment can be interpreted to suit anyone’s motives — from abortion to immigration — yet this state thievery is allowed to go on in light of this portion of the Amendment:

“nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”

What on Earth am I missing here? How is civil forfeiture in any way Constitutional?

calbear on August 2, 2010 at 2:50 PM

Civil forfeiture without a conviction first is an abomination of American justice. It is unconstitutional, un-american and needs to end. So does Kelo vrs. City of New London.

FloatingRock on August 2, 2010 at 2:50 PM

So theft by the government is ok as long as you get your cut?

Sammy316 on August 2, 2010 at 2:45 PM

Mostly, it would be about resolving the conflict of interest inherent in allowing those who are the decision makers in the process to keep the proceeds.

Count to 10 on August 2, 2010 at 2:51 PM

My best friend bought a historical house in San Diego – which he rented out.

He carefully screened a well-to-do lawyer, who wanted to rent the place. This place cost millions … but this lawyer was rich and came with a good name.

How was my friend to know that this lawyer would STOP practicing law and START mixing drugs in the bathtub?

DEA arrested the lawyer – and confiscated the property. My friend got it back in one year – but he was financially ruined by the experience. He had to pay the mortgage on that house for a year – which was tremendous. Taxes were also tremendous. It was an incredible monetary sink hole for a year as it sat vacant – earning no income for him. He wasn’t even allowed to go inside.

When he did go inside a year later – he found the lawyer had totally trashed the placed – and extensive repairs were required.

Anecdotal, rare – yes. But it was devastating to him.

HondaV65 on August 2, 2010 at 2:51 PM

I’ve never understood how the 14th Amendment can be interpreted to suit anyone’s motives — from abortion to immigration — yet this state thievery is allowed to go on in light of this portion of the Amendment:

“nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law”

What on Earth am I missing here? How is civil forfeiture in any way Constitutional?

calbear on August 2, 2010 at 2:50 PM

That, too.

Count to 10 on August 2, 2010 at 2:52 PM

This was predicted at the time these laws began being enacted. I was quite young, but I remember.

29Victor on August 2, 2010 at 2:52 PM

HondaV65 – Not so rare, actually.

SWLiP on August 2, 2010 at 2:53 PM

Isn’t this part of RICO? Isn’t this how they seize the assets of organized crime?

keep the change on August 2, 2010 at 2:53 PM

the IRS has the same modus operandi…

equanimous on August 2, 2010 at 2:53 PM

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.
===================================
Amen,on that!!

canopfor on August 2, 2010 at 2:55 PM

•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.

Have to laugh at that. In many states, if they stop your car and you have a lot of cash, they will just take it, and make you prove you weren’t carrying it for a drug buy.

Paul-Cincy on August 2, 2010 at 3:02 PM

Isn’t this part of RICO? Isn’t this how they seize the assets of organized crime?

keep the change on August 2, 2010 at 2:53 PM

That’s what they claimed at the time. Things like this tend to get out of hand when not in the hands of men of sterling virtue. Which would be just about everyone.

sharrukin on August 2, 2010 at 3:02 PM

The first vote I ever cast in my life was for Reagan. That being said there were many things he did that in his administration that had far reaching (bad) consequences that haunt America to this day. The first was appointing Sandra Day to the Supreme Court. We got such great jurisprudence and well thought out decisions from her. Of course amnesty to illegals was a bad idea and set a horrible precedent. If you reward illegal behavior you only get more illegal behavior.
Worst of them all was the “Drug Forfeiture Laws”. The intention was to take away the profits from dealing drugs. It was a shame that law wasn’t written that way. It bypassed parts of the constitution and gives way to much power to terrorize to the law enforcement community. It was poorly written and so easy to abuse.

Tommy_G on August 2, 2010 at 3:02 PM

Incredible that this goes on in a 1st world nation.

JohnTant on August 2, 2010 at 3:03 PM

Revised: I won, it’s mine

right2bright on August 2, 2010 at 3:04 PM

No one should have their life, liberty, or property seized by the government without due process.

Bwahahahahahha. What do you think a welfare state is, Ed?

Aquateen Hungerforce on August 2, 2010 at 3:06 PM

But, but, but, big brother loves us.

Speakup on August 2, 2010 at 3:07 PM

Tommy_G on August 2, 2010 at 3:02 PM

I’m pretty sure everything you listed was a case of Regan failing to restrain congress.

Count to 10 on August 2, 2010 at 3:08 PM

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

.Cannot be said often enough, until such seizures are ended!

Ira on August 2, 2010 at 3:09 PM

This reeks of libertariantardness. No thanks. I’m fine with the status quo. It shouldn’t be that difficult to explain in court why you have a quarter of a million bucks in coffee cans in your garage even though your only source of income is from your paper route. I mean, if it was legally come by…if not, you’re sh*te out of luck.

Blake on August 2, 2010 at 3:10 PM

If I were a cop, I would make up a crime and start seizing the politicians’ mansion’ in Texas. See how they like it.

jeffn21 on August 2, 2010 at 3:11 PM

I will never buy any property seized by any government by unconstitutional and immoral means, that includes tax seizures in my book.

Maquis on August 2, 2010 at 3:16 PM

This reeks of libertariantardness. No thanks. I’m fine with the status quo. It shouldn’t be that difficult to explain in court why you have a quarter of a million bucks in coffee cans in your garage even though your only source of income is from your paper route. I mean, if it was legally come by…if not, you’re sh*te out of luck.

Explaining it is one thing. Proving it is another. It’s pretty much impossible to prove innocence.

Farmer_Joe on August 2, 2010 at 3:17 PM

This reeks of libertariantardness. No thanks. I’m fine with the status quo. It shouldn’t be that difficult to explain in court why you have a quarter of a million bucks in coffee cans in your garage even though your only source of income is from your paper route. I mean, if it was legally come by…if not, you’re sh*te out of luck.

Blake on August 2, 2010 at 3:10 PM

I dislike libertarians as well, but guilty until proven innocent is a really bad precedent.

sharrukin on August 2, 2010 at 3:25 PM

That article by Big Government mentions eminent domain in its very first sentence, but doesn’t even touch on that again throughout the rest of the article.

Throw Eminent Domain property seizure abuse, the nefarious theft of private property with a fraction of the actual property value compensated to the private property owners by the government, into the total values of property stolen by your loving and caring government and I bet it adds many billions of dollars to the theft totals.

Dhurka Dhurka on August 2, 2010 at 3:25 PM

If I were a cop, I would make up a crime and start seizing the politicians’ mansion’ in Texas. See how they like it.

jeffn21 on August 2, 2010 at 3:11 PM

I like this idea!

riverrat10k on August 2, 2010 at 3:29 PM

This reeks of libertariantardness. No thanks. I’m fine with the status quo. It shouldn’t be that difficult to explain in court why you have a quarter of a million bucks in coffee cans in your garage even though your only source of income is from your paper route. I mean, if it was legally come by…if not, you’re sh*te out of luck.

Blake on August 2, 2010 at 3:10 PM

So Blake of HotAir supports the notion of guilty until proven innocent. Gotcha.

FloatingRock on August 2, 2010 at 3:30 PM

What on Earth am I missing here? How is civil forfeiture in any way Constitutional? calbear on August 2, 2010 at 2:50 PM

I’ve heard it explained this way:

The property is being arrested, and as property, has no constitutional rights. Therefore, it can be held indefinetly on suspicion and/or w/o charge.

Not that I think that’s constitutional. If my propertry is taken without due process, then, although the property has no rights to violate, I sure have.

Akzed on August 2, 2010 at 3:30 PM

So Blake of HotAir supports the un-American notion of guilty until proven innocent. Gotcha.

FIFM

FloatingRock on August 2, 2010 at 3:30 PM

I know a woman who married a loser who, unbeknownst to her, ran a meth lab out in the Arizona desert. When he was arrested, they took all of her possessions from her personal jewelry to her pets and despite her protests that they weren’t given to her by the loser and that she was never charged with anything, they refused to give any of it back. It’s a travesty and an outrage yet the American public meekly accept the abuse as they do with so many other government predations on our liberties.

NNtrancer on August 2, 2010 at 3:33 PM

Anti-Arizona Immigration Law activists should focus on Civil Forfeiture. CF has proven to be racist.

*crickets* from Leftists on this issue because money is going directly to a form of government.

nottakingsides on August 2, 2010 at 3:33 PM

If I were a cop, I would make up a crime and start seizing the politicians’ mansion’ in Texas. See how they like it.

jeffn21 on August 2, 2010 at 3:11 PM

Sorry, civil forfeiture is used by the ruling class against the country class, never the other way around.

FloatingRock on August 2, 2010 at 3:33 PM

It shouldn’t be that difficult to explain in court why you have a quarter of a million bucks in coffee cans in your garage even though your only source of income is from your paper route. I mean, if it was legally come by…if not, you’re sh*te out of luck.

Blake on August 2, 2010 at 3:10 PM

Blake, most of these asset forfeiture cases have nothing to do with a guy with $250,000 in a coffee can. Most of these are middle class or poor people (mostly minority) who get pulled over for trivial traffic offenses and who the police discover have a few thousand dollars in cash on them. The cops threaten to throw them in prison or take their kids away unless they surrender the money. The police usually do not investigate or prosecute the people once they surrender the money. It’s literally highway robbery, except the robber has a badge.

Outlander on August 2, 2010 at 3:37 PM

Count to 10 on August 2, 2010 at 3:08 PM

Appointing a woman to the Supreme Court was one of his campaign promises, and it’s nice to see a candidate follow through on his promises. The problem was in 1981 there were very few female federal judges to choose from. As for the Simpson-Mazzoli Act (immigration reform) is was signed by Reagan with great fanfare. The war on drugs gave us another great law: the 1984 Federal Bail Reform Act, which allows prosecutors to request that drug defendants facing a possible sentence of ten years or more be held without bond until trial. These were all intentional acts by Reagan and can’t be blamed on congress.

Tommy_G on August 2, 2010 at 3:38 PM

Here is a famous seizure case that went all the way to the Supreme Court, involving a leased yacht and a deckhand found in possession of a single joint. The seizure was overturned. This case began in 1972.

In many seizure cases, the costs of traveling back to the point of seizure plus lawyer costs make it pointless to fight the seizure. This is why you find many local sheriffs/police camped out on interstates looking for any reason to pull people over. They just love out of state tags.

GnuBreed on August 2, 2010 at 3:42 PM

Akzed on August 2, 2010 at 3:30 PM

So the premise of asset forfeiture is predicated on the anthropomorphizing of inanimate objects?

liquidflorian on August 2, 2010 at 3:45 PM

In many seizure cases, the costs of traveling back to the point of seizure plus lawyer costs make it pointless to fight the seizure. This is why you find many local sheriffs/police camped out on interstates looking for any reason to pull people over. They just love out of state tags.

GnuBreed on August 2, 2010 at 3:42 PM

This is my favorite case of police abuse… Memphis police officers pulled people over and then pickpocketed them during the traffic stop!

Outlander on August 2, 2010 at 3:50 PM

Just got a computer type phone call looking for a Spanish sounding name – had to press the right buttons to let them know they had the wrong number — Bruce Willis had a film out a few years ago – he had a flying cab – I feel our Gov/Society has reached that point … I could use a flying cab about now ..

wheels on August 2, 2010 at 3:57 PM

This reeks of libertariantardness. No thanks. I’m fine with the status quo. It shouldn’t be that difficult to explain in court why you have a quarter of a million bucks in coffee cans in your garage even though your only source of income is from your paper route. I mean, if it was legally come by…if not, you’re sh*te out of luck.

Blake on August 2, 2010 at 3:10 PM

I own a boat. If you are the guest of one of my friends fore the day and bring some dope wrapped up in your town and we are seached, they take my boat.

It could take more than two years to “Prove” that I had nothing to do with it, that you were just a guest on my boat and that it was your dope. But in the mean time, the boat has been in police custody and I would be racking up “storage fees” on my boat that I am still paying the note for. After thousands of dollars of legal, towing and storage fees I get the boat back, stripped, because the storage lot has no responsibiltiy for the security of the boat.

That is civil forfeiture. Don’t own a boat? Replace the word car with boat in the story. Happened to a friend.

barnone on August 2, 2010 at 4:02 PM

I think the property should be held prior to trial in such a way that nobody has access, except the crime lab. The purpose of civil forfeiture is to keep someone who is part of organized crime from being able to shuffle their assets out of reach and keep the organized criminal enterprise going.

Holding the property in some kind of trust until the trial is over should accomplish this, without becoming a piggy bank for the cops.

Sekhmet on August 2, 2010 at 4:13 PM

So the premise of asset forfeiture is predicated on the anthropomorphizing of inanimate objects?

liquidflorian on August 2, 2010 at 3:45 PM

Or in other words, predicated on a lie.

FloatingRock on August 2, 2010 at 4:27 PM

You are slaves, you just haven’t been put to the fields yet.

“Civil forfeiture” is grotesquely unconstitutional, but the authorities that get to review that benefit too much from it to stop it. If you want to stop a drug lord from using drug money in court, you need to get a court to authorize that and then hold your trial.

This is about taking people’s property, NOT trying or often even charging them, and forcing them to sue you to get it back.

Highway robbery would be a too-polite way to describe this.

Oh, and Blake, that’s fine, you’re next.

Merovign on August 2, 2010 at 4:43 PM

Again, civil forfeiture is predicated on the property arguably being a part of the assets of an organized criminal enterprise. Assets being fungible, it can be quite easy to have another member of the criminal enterprise use or liquidate the assets in order to continue the criminal enterprise, should a member be arrested.

I don’t think police departments should gain any benefit from these assets without there having been a conviction. If the police can no longer financially benefit from the seized assets without a conviction, they won’t seize assets without a reasonable likelihood of conviction on distribution charges.

Sekhmet on August 2, 2010 at 4:52 PM

I think the property should be held prior to trial in such a way that nobody has access, except the crime lab. The purpose of civil forfeiture is to keep someone who is part of organized crime from being able to shuffle their assets out of reach and keep the organized criminal enterprise going.

Holding the property in some kind of trust until the trial is over should accomplish this, without becoming a piggy bank for the cops.

Sekhmet on August 2, 2010 at 4:13 PM

Sekhmet, fine post but it misses the point. Police departments are *supposed* to be trusted to hold such property in such a way that nobody has access or stands to gain from the forfeiture itself. But that’s not what’s happening. Now you’re suggesting another layer of bureaucracy to keep supposedly accountable public officials from, as you put it, adding that property to the piggy bank.

But who manages the trust you’re suggesting should be set up? Ultimately it will be the same people who are supposedly managing the police departments who aren’t supposed to be making up excuses to seize property in the first place.

If law enforcement can identify organized crime they can go through due process without turning into an organized crime family in the process.

JohnTant on August 2, 2010 at 5:09 PM

Gangster Government

TheBigOldDog on August 2, 2010 at 5:14 PM

Explaining it is one thing. Proving it is another. It’s pretty much impossible to prove innocence.

Farmer_Joe on August 2, 2010 at 3:17 PM

Which is insane anyway since our laws don’t require that we prove our innocence but that the government prove our guilt. Besides, if the crime is such that it warrants something so drastic as taking a house or car, why not just up the penalties on that particular crime unless you can prove the house or car were bought with dirty money?

I don’t see how this is legal even if the person is guilty.

So what if that was grandma’s drugs? Is this country really interested in stealing her house over it?

Esthier on August 2, 2010 at 5:20 PM

If law enforcement can identify organized crime they can go through due process without turning into an organized crime family in the process.

JohnTant on August 2, 2010 at 5:09 PM

Maybe, but they’re not an uninterested party here. If someone gets to hold my stuff until I prove I’m innocent, then the people who decide to take it and the people who hold onto it, shouldn’t be the same people who’d make money off it if I lose.

That’s system designed for corruption like this.

Esthier on August 2, 2010 at 5:23 PM

If the police can no longer financially benefit from the seized assets without a conviction, they won’t seize assets without a reasonable likelihood of conviction on distribution charges.

Sekhmet on August 2, 2010 at 4:52 PM

Especially not if they’re expected to maintain the property in the meantime and give the money back with interest the way the IRS does if it takes too much in taxes.

Esthier on August 2, 2010 at 5:26 PM

Take John Kerry’s yacht and make him prove he wasn’t evading Mass taxes even tho he gave it a “Newport” tramp stamp on it’s ass.

Alden Pyle on August 2, 2010 at 5:27 PM

I first became aware of this outrage in the early nineties, reading the series of investigative articles by Andrew Schneider and Mary Pat Flaherty of The Pittsburgh Press. This highly acclaimed article was widely read and praised at the time, but not a thing was done. The series is here: Presumed Guilty

It is really shameful that this can happen in a country that professes such high ideals.

slickwillie2001 on August 2, 2010 at 5:29 PM

I wonder where I am living. Beside you injustice goes unpunished, and randomly gain the attention of some Power and you in all you innocence can fight for your life versus the full weight of the state. The guilty and the innocent both protest, and the former skates and mocks when not reigned in, or worse seeks the positions of trust and power for themselves.

Some may say abuses are “rare”, but they can be devastating if they happen to you. Somehow the police should be able to distinguish between a mobster and an ordinary citizen. But, some police don’t want to, and use all of the powers designed to fight the former to harm a few of the latter to their own enrichment. These days, redcoats wear blue.

Would that our founders were here. They could organize. They could argue. They would step up to lead in government.

AnotherOpinion on August 2, 2010 at 5:45 PM

I still don’t get how something that’s blatantly against the 4th, 5th, and 8th ammendments is anything but unconstitutional.

Dave_d on August 2, 2010 at 6:44 PM

Predictably, abuse is rampant

Impossible. We’re talking about the GOVERNMENT here. And, as everyone knows, the government is never greedy, only private property owners are.

The government only takes property and power in order to protect our rights. So the more of it they take the better. That’s what the Constitution is all about.

logis on August 2, 2010 at 7:12 PM

A.F. creates yet another perverse incentive for law enforcement.

The stated rationale for fighting the war on drugs and the creation of the asset forfeiture monster is the need to keep dangerous drugs “off the streets” and out of the hands of America’s children.

But law enforcement would much rather seize cash or property (with which they can supplement their budget) than a cache of illegal drugs (which they would eventually destroy)

This has led to instances of LE, upon becoming aware of a stash of illegal drugs, intentionally delaying arrest of dealer long enough for the dealer to liquidate all or most of his stash into cash.

The end result being more $$$ for the police, and more drugs in the community.

Bob Mc on August 3, 2010 at 1:07 AM

Sadly, I’m afraid they’re right. Civil forfeiture is a good tool for law enforcement if used properly. It drives home the concept of “abuse it, lose it” to the simpletons in society and can be used to take the toys of those who got them by ill means.

But as corruption is reaching near-Mexican levels in not a few places, I really think this tool needs to be put back in the toolbox until we can be sure our justice system won’t abuse it.

Dark-Star on August 3, 2010 at 10:38 AM