Legalized Robbery: The Injustice of Civil Asset Forfeiture

The United States of America strives for justice within its borders, yet the government shamelessly allows an injustice against its innocent citizens on a regular basis. Civil Asset Forfeiture is a law under which, even without evidence of a crime, any agency of the Justice Department can seize any and all assets from civilians.

This contrasts from Criminal Asset Forfeiture law which allows for the seizure of the property and assets from convicted criminals. Since property may be seized from innocent people Civil Asset Forfeiture is obsolete, yet the proponents of civil forfeiture laws claim this clear violation of civil rights is a necessary evil within our society.

Civil Asset Forfeiture allows for the confiscation of anything in a heartbeat: money, cars, technology, and in some cases, houses. The purpose of this law is supposedly to allow for the confiscation of illegal drugs and weapons without going to court. However the U.S. Department of Justice’s 2014 statistics list cash as the most often confiscated item, with 13,983 cases in which cash was seized, double the number of cases in which drugs or illegal weapons were seized.

The main contributor to the abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture is the profit incentive; local law enforcement agencies can keep all of the profits they make off forfeitures, and often times this money is used for bonuses or vacations, showing that the money from forfeiture is not a necessity, but is instead used for a slush fund.

The Fifth Amendment is supposed to protect people from the loss of property or assets without due process of law, otherwise known as a trial, yet civil forfeiture circumvents these protections and leaves victims defenseless.

Since the inanimate objects targeted by civil forfeiture are not protected by the Bill of Rights, any attempts to challenge the forfeiture are futile. Instead of facing an impartial judge, any appeals to the forfeiture will face a prosecutor from the district attorney’s office in the courtroom.

As satirical comedian John Oliver said on his show, Last Week Tonight, in regards to civil forfeiture, “How can you even still call that a courtroom? If you take all the doctors out of a hospital and replace them with otters, that’s no longer a hospital!”

In Civil Asset Forfeiture, the owner of the property or assets is not being charged with a crime. Instead, the property or assets themselves are being charged with a crime. These inanimate objects do not have the right to a jury and are considered guilty until proven innocent.

It is up to the owner to prove the property’s innocence, even if no evidence exists to indicate the property is guilty. And that statement itself is preposterous: how can an inanimate object be guilty or innocent when it is incapable of making decisions and moving on its own?

If the courts are not accusing the owner of committing a crime, then it is because no crime has actually been committed. If a crime had been committed, then the owner of the property would be put on trial, and Criminal Asset Forfeiture could be used.

The Institute for Justice, a nonprofit civil liberties law firm, is currently creating a Supreme Court case with the goal of having Civil Asset Forfeiture being declared unconstitutional. While some states have begun to recognize the immorality of Civil Asset Forfeiture, state laws can be overruled by the federal law using a program called “equitable sharing”.

Equitable sharing, as defined by the U.S. Department of Justice, is a program by which “the Department of Justice distributes an equitable share of forfeited property and proceeds to participating state and local law enforcement agencies that directly participate in an investigation or prosecution that result in a federal forfeiture.” Or, in layman’s terms, local law enforcement can ignore the state laws for the sake of making a profit. Until the federal law changes, state laws are all but meaningless to law enforcement.

I strongly urge you to not just take my word for it on this issue; go do research, read the victims’ stories for yourself, and encourage others to educate themselves on this blatant disregard for our rights.