Because America’s Founding Fathers properly wanted to protect citizens from government abuse, the Constitution has several provisions (presumption of innocence, ban on warrantless searches, right to jury trial, 5th Amendment protection against self-incrimination, and other due process legal protections) to protect our liberties.
So one can only imagine how Jefferson, Madison, Mason, et al, must be rolling in their graves as they contemplate the disgusting practice of civil asset forfeiture, which basically allows agents of the government in the modern era to steal property from people who have not been convicted of any crime. I’m not joking.
Even worse, government agencies are allowed to profit from this form of theft, creating a terrible incentive for abuse.
Like certain other bad government policies that trample our rights (i.e., money-laundering laws that require banks to snoop on law-abiding customers), civil asset forfeiture is largely a result of the government’s failed War on Drugs. In other words, a classic example of one bad policy leading to other bad policies.
However, the Trump Administration and Justice Department are now pushing in the wrong direction.
Sessions Wants to Steal From You
Writing for USA Today, Professor Glenn Reynolds correctly castigates the Attorney General for his actions.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions wants to steal from you. Oh, he doesn’t call it that. He calls it “civil forfeiture.” But what it is, is theft by law enforcement. Sessions should be ashamed. If I were president, he’d be fired. Under “civil forfeiture” law enforcement can take property from people under the legal fiction that the property itself is guilty of a crime. …It was originally sold as a tool for going after the assets of drug kingpins, but nowadays it seems to be used against a lot of ordinary Americans who just have things that law enforcement wants. …Once in America, we had a presumption of innocence. But that was inconvenient to the powers that be. The problem is pretty widespread: In 2015, The Washington Post reported that law enforcement took more stuff from people than burglars did. …Sessions is doing exactly the wrong thing by doubling down on asset seizure. The message it sends is that the feds see the rest of us as prey, not as citizens. The attorney general should be ashamed to take that position.
David French of National Review is similarly disgusted.
…civil asset forfeiture. It’s a gigantic law-enforcement scam (in 2014 the government took more money from citizens than burglars stole from crime victims), and it’s a constitutional atrocity. It’s a constitutional atrocity that Donald Trump’s Department of Justice just expanded. Yesterday, Attorney General Jeff Sessions revived an abusive program that allows state authorities to seize property and then transfer the property to the federal government to implement the forfeiture process. Once the Feds obtain forfeiture, they then share the proceeds with the seizing state agency. This allows state law enforcement to explicitly circumvent state forfeiture restrictions and profit while doing so. …civil forfeiture allows the government to deprive citizens of their property even when it doesn’t even try to prove that the citizen committed a crime. …if the last 30 years of constitutional jurisprudence have taught us anything, it’s that we can’t count on courts to protect the Constitution when the War on Drugs is at issue. Forfeiture expanded dramatically as part of the War on Drugs, and the Supreme Court has proven that it will undermine even the First Amendment when constitutional rights clash with drug-enforcement priorities.
States and Localities Too
Erick Erickson adds his condemnation in the Resurgent.
Attorney General Jeff Sessions…has decided to expand a positively unconstitutional policy that should be ruthlessly fought in courts and legislatures around the country. Jeff Sessions wants to seize the property of Americans accused of crimes even if they are never found guilty by a jury.
…According to the Department of Justice’s Inspector General, the Drug Enforcement Agency alone has seized more than $3 billion from people not charged with a crime. …What is appalling here is that many states are enacting prohibitions on civil asset forfeiture, but the Attorney General wants to allow state and local law enforcement to use federal asset forfeiture laws to continue seizing property. Local law enforcement will thereby be able to get around their own states’ laws, so long as they share the spoils of their ill gotten gains with the federal government. This turns the concept of federalism on its head.
In a column for Reason, Damon Root of Reason adds his two cents.
…civil asset forfeiture is not a “lawful tool.” It is an unconstitutional abuse of government power. The Fifth Amendment forbids the government from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. Civil asset forfeiture turns that venerable principle on its head, allowing government agents to take what they want without the bother of bringing charges, presenting clear and convincing evidence, and obtaining a conviction in a court of law. It is the antithesis of due process. …Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas…recently explained in a statement respecting the denial of certiorari in the case of Leonard v. Texas, not only has civil asset forfeiture “led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses” by law enforcement agencies around the country, but the practice is fundamentally incompatible with the Constitution.
Forget about Procedure and Justice
Last but not least, the editors of National Review make several important points.
Like the Democrats’ crackpot plan to revoke the Second Amendment rights of U.S. citizens who have been neither charged with nor convicted of a crime simply for having been fingered as suspicious persons by some anonymous operative in Washington, seizing an American’s property because a police officer merely suspects that he might be a drug dealer or another species of miscreant does gross violence to the basic principle of due process. No doubt many of the men and women on the terrorism watch list are genuine bad guys, and no doubt many of those who have lost their property to asset forfeiture are peddling dope. But we are a nation of laws, which means a nation of procedural justice. If the DEA or the LAPD wants to punish a drug trafficker, then let them build a case, file charges, and see the affair through to a conviction. We have no objection to seizing the property of those convicted of drug smuggling – or of crimes related to terrorism, or many other kinds of offenses. We object, as all Americans should object, to handing out these punishments in the absence of a criminal conviction. …No American should be deprived of liberty or property without due process.
For those of us who honor the Constitution, civil asset forfeiture is a stain on the nation.
P.S. If you want to put a human face on the horror of civil asset forfeiture, check out the horrible abuse that the Dehko family experienced. Or the mistreatment of Carole Hinders. Or the ransacking of Joseph Rivers. Or the brutalization of Thomas Williams.
P.P.S. And think about the fact that the first two administrators of the federal government’s asset forfeiture program now want it to be repealed.
Reprinted from International Liberty.