The growing national chorus in favor of civil asset forfeiture reform gained new allies in the halls of Congress last week. Denouncing civil forfeiture as an “ugly development,” Representative Tim Walberg (R–MI) took to the floor of the House of Representatives to call for the practice to be investigated and curbed.
Civil asset forfeiture allows law enforcement agencies to seize property believed to be related to illegality, regardless of whether the owner is ever charged with or convicted of an actual crime. Law enforcement can then sell the property and, in many states, keep the proceeds as pure profit. Oversight is low, consequences for improper forfeitures are virtually nonexistent, and the potential proceeds are huge. The result is a system that allows for abuse and too often strips innocent people of their property.
A growing list of states are passing or considering new reforms meant to curb the practice and protect their citizens. Just last month, Minnesota made criminal conviction a requirement before property can be civilly forfeited. Wyoming will take up reform measures later this year, and bills have been proposed in Tennessee following troubling instances of roadside robbery by cops patrolling the state’s highways.
But civil forfeiture is not a blight merely on state and local law enforcement. Federal civil forfeiture laws allowed the IRS to strip $35,000 from Michigan grocer Terry Dehko based on dubious evidence. He was forced into a lengthy legal fight to win back his hard-earned money. Furthermore, federal law allows state and local agencies to “work around state laws that prohibit civil forfeitures so long as the state agency partners with the Department of Justice and splits the profits,” as Representative Walberg put it. In other words, state reform isn’t enough: Reform is needed at the federal level as well.
Following Walberg’s colloquy, Representatives Frank Wolf (R–VA)—chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, and Science—and Chaka Fattah (D–PA) threw their support behind a call for an investigation of civil forfeiture practices and procedures. This move marks a first step toward protecting the property rights of Americans from abusive policing for profit.