The Institute for Justice reports that civil forfeiture laws allow the government to take cash, businesses, cars, homes and other property suspected of being involved in criminal activity. Here’s how law enforcement abuses the system.

Brigida Santos

Civil forfeiture laws allow the government to take cash, businesses, cars, homes and other property suspected of being involved in criminal activity. What’s so crazy is that the property owner doesn’t even have to be charged with or convicted of a crime to permanently lose his or her property, as is the case with criminal forfeiture. 

Research from the Cornell University Law School highlights the fact that,

Civil forfeiture rests on the idea (a legal fiction) that the property itself, not the owner, has violated the law….Unlike criminal forfeiture, civil forfeiture proceeds against the property, not the person. In theory, civil actions are remedial, not punitive like criminal proceedings. By acting civilly, the government seeks to remedy a harm, through the fiction of the property’s ‘guilt.’

Many people, myself included, believe civil asset forfeiture is in direct violation of our Constitutional rights, particularly the 4th, 5th and 8th Amendments, which are supposed to protect the people from unreasonable searches and seizures, guarantee due process and prohibit excessive fines. 

EndForefeiture.Com lists 42 states that are allowed to keep all seized property. Here’s how it’s legal: 

Federal laws encourage even more civil forfeiture abuse through a loophole called “equitable sharing” that allows law enforcement to circumvent even the limited protections of state laws. With equitable sharing, law enforcement agencies can and do profit from forfeitures that they would not have profited from under state law.

So what do law enforcement agencies do with your property once it’s in their possession?

They sell it or keep the cash for their own use. This policy gives agencies a direct financial incentive to “police for profit” and seize or forfeit as much property as possible in order to fund their budgets or in many cases, abuse the system. Take these two examples from Oklahoma. 

A local paper in the state, Tulsa World, reports:

  • A 2009 audit of the District Attorney’s Office that represents Beaver, Cimarron, Harper and Texas counties found that a Beaver County assistant district attorney began living rent-free in a house obtained in a 2004 forfeiture. A judge had ordered the house sold at an auction, but the prosecutor lived there through 2009…Utility bills and repairs made to the house were paid out of the district attorney’s supervision fee account and the District Attorney’s Office didn’t report the benefit as income for tax purposes.
  • A 2014 audit of the DA’s office representing Washington and Nowata counties, the State Auditor’s Office found that $5,000 in forfeiture funds had been used to make payments on an assistant district attorney’s student loans. The report said the district attorney maintained the expense was justified because most of the cases the assistant DA prosecuted were drug cases.

Oklahoma state law mandates that the proceeds from the forfeited property be spent on the enforcement of drug laws and drug-abuse prevention and education. But instead, they were used for the prosecutors’ own personal gains. 

These are just two reported cases of many others. Check out some of the most recent ones here

Is it time to reform civil asset forfeiture laws and end policing for profit? If you say yes, take action

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