Civil asset forfeiture, also known as civil judicial forfeiture, is a controversial legal process in which law enforcement agencies take personal assets from individuals or groups suspected of a crime or illegal activity. This can be done without bringing criminal charges against those whose assets are seized, and the standards of proof allowing seizure differ from state to state.
In 2012, the Baltimore Sun found 48 percent of civil asset forfeiture cases closed in Maryland ended with the government retaining property without a conviction. It also found 80 percent of people from whom the federal government seized property for forfeiture were never charged with a crime.
Proponents of forfeiture argue it allows law enforcement agencies to use seized assets toward their enforcement efforts, transforming property illicitly gained by criminals into resources that can be used for public benefit. Critics of the process note it gives police departments economic incentives to seize property, corrupting law enforcement agencies and penalizing innocent property owners. Many states impose no penalties on law enforcement for wrongful seizures, and when property is deemed to have been taken illegally, taxpayers usually have to pay for the returned assets.
Owners of seized property are essentially guilty until proven innocent: To recover their property, they must prove the property was not used in criminal activity. Unless an owner actively works to recover his or her property, it will be lost. Property owners are often given very little opportunity to challenge the seizures. When given the opportunity, the process is expensive for those whose property is seized, as they must pay for attorneys and legal fees to prove their innocence. In many instances, property owners must meet with prosecutors, not a judge or jury, to get back their property.
Some states have laws limiting the ability of local police to conduct civil forfeitures, and others require higher standards of proof before property can be taken. In some states, however, civil forfeiture procedures can be arbitrary.
In addition, many local police agencies have begun to work with federal authorities to sidestep restrictions through so-called equitable sharing agreements, in which both parties agree to classify the suspected criminal activity as a federal crime and divide the seized assets between them. The federal agencies receive between 10 and 20 percent, and the local police get the remainder. This allows local law enforcement agencies to ignore state law and circumvent the will of state legislatures and the people.
Scott Bullock, senior attorney at the Institute for Justice, advocates eliminating forfeitures altogether except in cases of maritime and customs law. He also offers five recommendations for states not willing to halt all forfeitures: place seized revenues in neutral funds, increase the standard of proof for seizure to require “clear and convincing evidence” of a crime, move the burden of proof to the government, make the tracking of seized assets more transparent, and eliminate equitable sharing arrangements.
State legislators should implement these reforms to remove incentives for police to seize assets and to require clear evidence a person has committed a crime before property is taken.
The following documents provide additional information about civil asset forfeiture.
Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture
Marian Williams, Jefferson Holcomb, Tomislav Kovandzic, and Scott Bullock argue civil asset forfeiture laws constitute one of the most serious assaults on private property rights in the nation today. “Americans are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but civil forfeiture turns that principle on its head. With civil forfeiture, your property is guilty until you prove it innocent,” they write.
Civil Asset Forfeiture, Equitable Sharing, and Policing for Profit in the United States
Jefferson E. Holcomb and Marian R. Williams, professors in the Department of Government and Justice Studies at Appalachian State University, and Tomislav V. Kovandzic, a professor in the University of Texas-Dallas School of Economic, Political, and Policy Studies, identify the effects of civil asset forfeiture reform on law enforcement activities. They write, “there is substantial anecdotal evidence that law enforcement [agencies] utilize a variety of tactics to generate the greatest revenue from their forfeiture operations,” a hypothesis their analysis of U.S. Department of Justice statistics confirmed.
Seize First, Question Later: The IRS and Civil Forfeiture
Institute for Justice (IJ) researcher Dick M. Carpenter II and IJ attorney Larry Salzman examine the use and abuse of civil asset forfeiture laws by the Internal Revenue Service. “Federal civil forfeiture laws give the Internal Revenue Service the power to clean out bank accounts without charging their owners with any crime,” they write.
Civil Asset Forfeiture: 7 Things You Should Know
This Heritage Foundation Factsheet outlines several important things people should know about civil asset forfeiture.
Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Goes Mainstream
Jordan Richardson of The Heritage Foundation discusses how the growing number of civil asset forfeiture abuses have drawn the attention of news media and suggests the increased attention may lead to real reform.
The Civil Asset Forfeiture Racket
A. Barton Hinkle of the Reason Foundation examines the growing problems created by civil asset forfeiture and argues for repeal of such laws.
Inequitable Justice: How Federal ‘Equitable Sharing’ Encourages Local Police and Prosecutors to Evade State Civil Forfeiture Law for Financial Gain
This report from the Institute for Justice examines the federal law enforcement practice known as equitable sharing, which enables and indeed encourages state and local police and prosecutors to circumvent the civil forfeiture laws of their states for financial gain.
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