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Civil Asset Forfeiture- Valid Law Enforcement Tool or Legal Theft?

W. Scott Cole

Posted on February 6, 2019 23:59

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Civil asset forfeiture has been used by law enforcement for years and is defined by them as a way to seize the assets of people involved in crime so they don’t profit from their illegal activities. How many of us know how the process works? Get ready for a surprise… it’s not how you think.

Every state and the federal government have laws on their books that allow their law enforcement agencies to seize the assets of citizens. The requirements the police have to meet before private citizens lose their property are far lower than you might think.

The Greenville News, in South Carolina, recently finished a two-year investigation into that state’s asset seizure laws. The investigation, the first in-depth study of it’s kind in the nation, began with a barber who was stopped by police for a traffic infraction. He had $25,000 in his car intended for a property purchase. It was seized, although the barber was never convicted of a crime. It took him four years to get his money back and that process cost him his barbershop and over $16,000 in attorney fees.

In South Carolina alone, law enforcement seized $17 million in assets from it’s people from 2014-2016. It turns out this is not unusual, no matter where in the United States you look.

It is almost always on the citizen to prove he obtained the property legally and is innocent of wrongdoing, especially on the federal level, and they keep everything they seize. The states have varying levels of requirements regarding seizures, but those requirements can be bypassed by the simple expedient of participating in the federal government’s “Equitable Sharing Program”, in which the state agencies “partner” with the feds and split assets they seize. The state’s take in those partnerships is 80%.

Reform in this area is almost nonexistent. New Mexico, four years ago, passed a law forbidding any police department from participating in the Equitable Sharing Program and requiring a conviction before any assets can be seized, with all money going into the general fund. California is about to pass a law with the same requirements and Michigan is working on one that reforms it’s laws, but not to the extent of New Mexico.

All other states fall somewhere between New Mexico’s laws and the feds’ laws. Only three states have standards that are even close to New Mexico’s, while nine states requirements for seizure are close to or the same as the feds and most states are closer to the federal requirements than New Mexico’s.

Good news could be coming in the form of a case that was argued before the Supreme Court in November, 2018. In Timbs v. Indiana, Mr. Timbs had his Land Rover, which he bought for $42,000 from his father’s life insurance policy, seized after he sold undercover officers about $225 worth of drugs. He pleaded guilty, served five years probation and paid $1,200 in fines. The police kept his Land Rover. At issue is whether this seizure (and all seizures like it) is an unconstitutional violation under the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of excessive fines.

I have no problem with the government seizing property bought with criminal proceeds, but if no crime was committed and there was no conviction, there should be no seizure.

W. Scott Cole

Posted on February 6, 2019 23:59

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For decades, federal, state and local law enforcement agencies have been free to seize the property of Americans without...

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