What started off as a measure to hurt drug kingpins and their criminal empires by confiscation of their property has morphed into an often abused law enforcement tactic that harms blameless citizens.
“Civil forfeiture,” as the procedure which allows police to seize property suspected of being related to a crime is called, was the subject of a funny and informative John Oliver segment on HBO’s “Last Week Tonight.”
Oliver showcases some of the worst abuses that police departments have engaged in, including seizing cars in Detroit for having been driven to a “funk night” at an art institute where alcohol was being illegally served or taking sums of cash because “common people do not usually carry this much cash.”
In testimony given before a citizen commission, one police chief was surprisingly frank, referring to assets seized as “pennies from heaven” and said the money acquired was sometimes used to buy “toys” that the department could not usually afford. One example of such a toy is the margarita machine bought by a Texas police department.
Federal and states civil forfeiture statutes authorize law enforcement agencies to seize private property, ranging from sums of cash to cars and houses, merely on suspicion that a crime might have been committed.
No hearing is held prior to seizure, which occurs abruptly without any notice or warning whatsoever. Although civil forfeiture doesn’t draw criminal charges against the owner, it does deprive him of his property without due process based solely on an officer’s “reasonable suspicion” And a portion of the assets seized typically is retained by the police departments who seized the property in the first place.
These practices have been abused by many police departments, but people are fighting back. Americans from all sides of the political spectrum have started to expose the dangers of civil forfeiture. The Heritage Foundation held a panel to discuss Civil Forfeiture reform earlier this year, and members of Congress from both sides of the aisle in the Senate and the House have introduced legislation to reform the federal civil forfeiture laws. Reforms of state laws have also been called for.
To be sure, civil forfeiture has helped cripple organized crime, but it has been abused to deprive innocent citizens of due process and their property, violating norms enshrined in our founding documents. Certainly this is an area of the law in need of reform.