This summer, Americans for Tax Reform hosted a policy primer on civil asset forfeiture. The event featured two panels with speakers from the Coalition for Public Safety, Heritage Foundation, CATO Institute, Institute for Justice, American Conservative Union, and more.
Several of the speakers on the first panel described civil asset forfeiture as legal stealing. Law enforcement can take a person’s property if they suspect the person is involved in criminal activity, they explained. The person may not ever be arrested for the “criminal activity,” let alone convicted.
These laws have been around for over a century but gained newfound popularity in the 1980s when the “war on drugs” ramped up. The primary goal was to deprive people believed to be involved in crime from the earnings they would receive from illegal activity. However, usage of civil asset forfeiture has expanded in recent years well beyond the original objective.
Under some of the current laws, property can be seized without any probable cause. Unlike due process for an individual, a person must prove that their property is innocent. Even after the individual is deemed innocent, it is an uphill battle for them to retrieve their possessions.
Law enforcement has great incentive to partake in these activities. A police chief referenced by one of the panelists referred to it as “pennies from heaven” because there is no oversight to where the money is spent. Many police budgets rely heavily on forfeiture money, so police take as much as they can. In 1986, forfeitures made about $93 million in revenue. That number jumped to over a billion dollars in 2008. In 2012, civil forfeiture earned $4.3 billion.
There is traction for reform on the state level. Montana, South Carolina, and New Mexico are leading voices for reform, and a state senate bill in California proposes that a defendant be convicted of a crime before related cash or property can be permanently seized. Such changes can only do so much, however, when there are still no restrictions on the problem nationally. Fortunately, there are more and more policy makers on both sides of the aisle who think reform is necessary, which provides the hope that changes might occur.
The second panel discussed the FAIR Act, a bill in the U.S. Senate sponsored by Sen. Rand Paul that seeks to reform the practice of civil asset forfeiture. Sen. Charles Grassley, the chair of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, is an advocate for the legislation, which may prove to be very helpful to the bill’s success.
A victim of civil asset forfeiture, Joseph Rivers, was invited to tell his story. Rivers was traveling to California through New Mexico to shoot a music video when a DEA agent took $16,000 in cash from him without due process. Even though New Mexico has passed strict laws limiting this practice, it was legal in this instance because they were federal agents. He was not arrested for anything and has heard nothing from the federal government about his money. The rest of his story can be found here.
“There are two types of people,” one of the panelists concluded, “those that don’t know what civil forfeiture is and those that are mad about it … We need to move people from the first type to the second.”