Under these sorts of laws, police can seize citizens’ property—cash, cars and even houses—without ever convicting them of, or in some cases even charging them with, a crime. The laws were created to fight drug trafficking in the ‘80s, but civil liberties groups say the perverse incentives just as often lead police to target everyday people.
The Center for American Progress report includes one example of a Philadelphia woman in her mid-60s whose house was seized by police after her niece’s boyfriend was arrested on suspicion of dealing drugs outside the house. She was eventually able to recover her house with the help of pro bono legal assistance, but most people caught in the asset forfeiture system aren’t so lucky.
Since civil asset forfeiture isn’t a criminal proceeding, there is no right to a public defender, and the system is heavily weighted in favor of the government—essentially forcing property owners to prove they are innocent or pay hefty fines to retrieve their possessions. In some states, residents must pay cash bonds before they can even challenge a seizure.