Yes, it could happen to you. Your personal property and/or cash can be taken from you by law enforcement or other government enforcement agencies without your having been accused of a crime and with very little chance of ever retrieving your belongings.
This frightening proposition, an all-too-real scenario, for far too many Americans, is brought you through a perverse government profit incentive known as civil asset forfeiture.
Ask any of the 44 attendees at a Contemporary Art Institute of Detroit gala who were held at gunpoint and had their vehicles seized by armor-clad police for having committed the heinous crime of attending an art party. Ask Rhonda Cox of Pinal County, Arizona, whose only crime was lending her pickup truck to her teenage son, but had her vehicle seized and sold to pay for the sheriff’s personal security system, county retirement funds, and a private foundation that raises money for the sheriff’s office.
Many more Americans are being penalized for crimes they’ve never committed — sometimes at the expense of losing their cars and homes — without ever being charged with a crime, without being heard by a judge, and without an opportunity to defend themselves in court.
If law enforcement has any suspicion that your property has been involved in criminal activity, without charging you with any criminal activity, that agency, at the federal level and in many states, can seize that property, and then collect and spend the proceeds through civil asset forfeiture. In fact, some 80 percent of those who have had their personal property taken by the federal government through civil asset forfeiture have never been charged with a crime.
So while our justice system is founded on the presumption of innocence, civil asset forfeiture assumes guilt of a person’s property, leaving the owner scrambling to prove its innocence. With civil asset forfeiture, a person’s property is often guilty until proven innocent.
Worse, getting property back is far from easy, as the success rate of citizens having their property returned is very low. In many cases, it’s better for the owner to forfeit the property rather than go through the expensive and time-consuming challenge proceedings.
This blatant Fifth Amendment violation and widespread practice of seizure and forfeiture varies widely from state to state. In 42 states, at least some proportion of forfeiture proceeds — including cash, and from the sale of cars, homes, or other seized property — go directly to law enforcement agencies.
The system is badly in need of reform, and several states over the past few years, including New Mexico and Montana, have enacted legislation to reform the practice and further protect innocent citizens by requiring a criminal conviction in order for law enforcement to confiscate a person’s property.
As national momentum for reforming the justice system continues to build, both progressives and conservatives, who rarely agree on much else, have coalesced around the principle that citizens are often wrongly targeted and denied their basic due-process rights, and that comprehensive reform should include civil asset forfeiture.
The growing number of states that have implemented reforms proves the value of reform, and each victory represents bipartisan collaboration to achieve that end. Continued bipartisan cooperation on the national and state levels will be an important step toward making the justice system smarter, fairer, and more effective.