Civil Forfeiture: Some Real Bullshit

Why This Matters | Saumya Jain | April 5, 2016

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After a drug bust on TV, cops sort through enormous amounts of drugs, cash, guns, and cars. These assets are then confiscated as evidence to be impounded and locked down. In real life, this process of confiscating illegal property is called civil forfeiture.

“Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced last week that the federal civil forfeiture program is once again underway.”

Civil forfeiture is a law that gives law enforcement the right to take possession of property that they suspect may have been used to commit or facilitate a crime. On paper it’s a great idea – the money and property seized leaves the pockets of criminals and into the hands of police departments, who use it to help fight crime.

In practice, there are many documented cases of the government abusing civil forfeiture. People like Emiliano Gonzolez and Terry Dehko woke up one day to find that police departments and government agencies had confiscated thousands of dollars of their hard-earned money. Neither of these men were ever convicted or even charged with any crime. Nonetheless, they both had to get involved in legal battles just to get back money that was theirs in the first placeIn 2014 alone, the federal government used civil forfeiture to confiscate over $5 Billion. If this story sounds familiar, you may have heard it from John Oliver, who brilliantly broke down the issue in October 2014.

Since then, the Justice Department had temporarily suspended a civil forfeiture program that made it frighteningly easy for police departments to confiscate property under federal law. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced last week that the federal civil forfeiture program is once again underway. Authorized to keep up to 80% of confiscated assets, cash-strapped police departments have huge incentives to keep seizing property.

Under the federal standard today, authorities need a “preponderance of evidence” in order to seize property. This means that if more than 50% of evidence suggests that somebody is guilty of a crime, the police have the legal right to confiscate assets from that person. In practice, this standard puts citizens in a dangerous gray area where innocent people have ended up losing thousands of dollars. Even once proven innocent, people get caught up in messy legal battles with the US government just to reclaim property that should never have been taken away in the first place.

This is a ridiculous violation of American civil liberties and property rights. Fortunately there is something we can all do to help curb the abuse of civil forfeiture. Tim Walberg, a Republican Congressman from Michigan, has introduced HB 540, the FAIR act. This bill would require the government to provide more substantial proof  before seizing property, and help ensure that the individuals affected by civil forfeiture have proper legal representation.  

This law has been stalled in a Congressional subcommittee for the past year, at least partially because not a lot of people know about this issue. If you care about people’s civil liberties and the right to own property in this country, then please, please email or call your Representative and Senator. There’s a sample email template at the bottom of this article – all you have to do is fill in the names, go to your Congressman’s website, and send it.

Dear [CONGRESSMAN or SENATOR],

The Justice Department announced recently that they will be continuing a civil forfeiture program that allows authorities to confiscate property from citizens based purely on the suspicion of committing a crime. I believe that this law violates the property rights and civil liberties of Americans, and has no place in a country where individuals are innocent until proven guilty. I urge you to support HB540, the FAIR Act, and help put an end to the abuse of civil forfeiture.

Sincerely,

[YOUR NAME]