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. – Amendment IV
What is Civil Asset Forfeiture?
It is a foundation of American criminal law that police cannot conduct searches or seizures without a warrant. Citizens are protected from the long arm of the government by a judicial check. We cannot be harassed and terrorized in our homes by agents of state power. We cannot have our belongings and private documents taken as a means of coercion. Yet this foundation is crumbling.
In jurisdictions around the country, police are stealing from American citizens. They are perpetrating thefts by the thousands, and they are doing so completely legally. The doctrine of civil asset forfeiture permits law enforcement to seize property that they allege has been involved in criminal activity. They do not need a warrant, and they do not even need to charge the property’s owner with a crime; rather, they charge the property itself.
Civil asset forfeiture is used to seize cash, cars, even houses, without a warrant and without a trial. It is used against criminals and innocent people alike, and the police do not discriminate between the two.
Why is Civil Asset Forfeiture Bad?
Civil asset forfeiture would be a major issue even if it were being used solely against genuine criminals; it bypasses the Fourth Amendment, violates personal liberty, and circumvents an important procedural check on state power. That being said, what makes it so insidious is that police officers do not only target criminals. Greenville News in South Carolina released a colossal research project in 2019, entitled “TAKEN: How police departments make millions by seizing property” that chronicles over 3,200 instances of civil asset forfeiture and documents a myriad of cases where it was employed against completely innocent citizens. Any encounter with police can turn into a devastating loss of property, whether it’s a delivery driver losing their tip money after a traffic stop or a pair of siblings nearly losing their home after their brother, who did not live in the house, showed up while fleeing from police.
Once you are the victim of civil asset forfeiture, it turns out that it’s really difficult to get your property back. You must hire a lawyer and pay court filing fees. Once you appear in court, you must prove that you are not a criminal and that your property has not been involved in a crime. The government does not need to meet the standard of “beyond reasonable doubt” but rather “preponderance of evidence,” which means “more likely than not.” It is exceedingly challenging for defendants to prove a negative, which often results in forfeitures being upheld. The severe challenges of reclaiming property have consequences: the ACLU of New Jersey reports that only 3% of civil asset forfeitures are challenged in the state.
Law enforcement is enriching itself by legally stealing from innocent civilians. In South Carolina, the TAKEN report calculated that police had seized over $17 million using civil asset forfeiture. This money is reinvested right back into community policing: police departments bought guns, food, and even cars for personal use. Other instances have been documented of cops using seized funds for first-class travel, Segways, luxury cars, and $10,000 worth of Gatorade. Clearly, police departments do not need this money.
How to End Civil Asset Forfeiture
Civil asset forfeiture is unconstitutional state-sponsored extortion, plain and simple. It must be eliminated in every state and banned at the federal level. It is unacceptable for the supposed guardians of law and order to be dipping into the pockets of those they are meant to be protecting.
There is absolutely no excuse for allowing this theft to continue. The fraction of cases in which it can be used to hinder criminal activity is not even close to justifying such a gross encroachment on liberty.
In addition to ending the practice of civil asset forfeiture, jurisdictions that have permitted it to exist must audit every single instance of its use and return anything seized from individuals who were never charged with a crime. The state must make amends for its theft and remunerate the innocent people who have lost their property, homes, and livelihoods.
It’s time to revive our commitment to the promises laid out in the Fourth Amendment and end civil asset forfeiture. It is predatory, coercive, illegal, and profoundly un-American. Every day that passes without this reform is an affront to the basic tenets of liberty set forth by the Founders. Civil asset forfeiture must die.