Asset Forfeiture Provides Windfall for Law Enforcement
The Justice Department has temporarily put a stop to the practice.
The Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act became law in 2000. Asset forfeiture is a tool that gives law enforcement the power to seize property and cash if officials suspect it is connected to a crime, and it’s hailed by law enforcement as a vital tool for combating drug trafficking and money laundering.
The Institute for Justice reports that the Justice Department’s program furnished state and local law enforcement agencies some $4.7 billion in forfeiture proceeds from 2000 to 2013. What better way to help fund law enforcement than through the confiscation of property from criminals?
But the DOJ now plans to halt the program. Naturally, law enforcement wants it to continue, and the possibility of it being halted has raised concerns and prompted letters to Barack Obama and Attorney General Loretta Lynch.
The National Sheriff’s Association, to cite just one of the law enforcement groups expressing concern, said the Justice Department’s decision will hinder law enforcement agencies’ ability to do their jobs. “While Congress and the president vacation in peace and tranquility, law enforcement knows all too well that the criminals, terrorists, and criminal aliens do not take a holiday,” the sheriff’s organization noted. “Those seeking to do us harm can rest easier knowing one less tool can be used against them.”
However, typical of governments at all levels, which, as James Madison noted in Federalist 51, are operated by humans and not angels, this program has been abused to illegally confiscate the private, legally possessed property of innocent Americans. Essentially, the message government sends out far too frequently is, “Any useful program that governments have at their disposal will eventually be misused, to the detriment of the people for whose benefit it was developed.”
If you need a recent example of government power misused by government employees, remember Lois Lerner and the IRS targeting and harassing conservative organizations seeking non-profit status. Other examples of misbehavior are not hard to find.
The asset forfeiture program also is abused. Consider the source, but the ACLU rightly notes, “Civil forfeiture allows police to seize — and then keep or sell — any property they allege is involved in a crime. Owners need not ever be arrested or convicted of a crime for their cash, cars, or even real estate to be taken away permanently by the government.
"Forfeiture was originally presented as a way to cripple large-scale criminal enterprises by diverting their resources. But today, aided by deeply flawed federal and state laws, many police departments use forfeiture to benefit their bottom lines, making seizures motivated by profit rather than crime-fighting. For people whose property has been seized through civil asset forfeiture, legally regaining such property is notoriously difficult and expensive, with costs sometimes exceeding the value of the property. With the total value of property seized increasing every year, calls for reform are growing louder, and [the ACLU and others are] at the forefront of organizations seeking to rein in the practice.”
Adam and Jennifer Perry exemplify people who were victimized by this law and law enforcement officers willing to capitalize on it.
On Oct. 25, 2012, the couple was stopped for speeding in Henry County, Massachusetts. Police searched the couple’s vehicle and found a suitcase containing $107,520 in cash. Suspicious? Yes, but not a crime or necessarily evidence of a crime. And although no drugs or any other evidence of a crime were found, the police said they suspected the Perrys of criminal activity, and seized the cash and their vehicle.
During nine hours of questioning, the Perrys insisted they had done nothing wrong and that the money was theirs legally, from various legal sources, and they had evidence confirming that for some of the funds. Lacking any real evidence of a crime, the police had to release the couple. But police kept the money and the vehicle, even though no charges were filed, no trial was held, and no guilt was proved. Three years later, the Perrys are still fighting to get their property back.
If this legalized theft from innocent citizens isn’t bad enough, now a federal judge has demanded that the Perrys prove how they got the money, this after they had already given explanations to the police, who did not disprove those explanations. Question: If there was no evidence of a crime, and no charges filed, why should these citizens be compelled to prove where they got their own money?
A fundamental American legal principle is the presumption of innocence — that Americans are innocent until “proven” guilty, and that the onus is on the judicial system to prove guilt, not on citizens to prove they aren’t guilty. Asset forfeiture essentially codifies guilt first until innocence is proven.
On Dec. 23, the Justice Department announced it will discontinue the asset forfeiture program, but the discontinuation is temporary.
The tyrannical treatment of the Perrys by Henry County police and a federal judge epitomizes what “un-American” means. Before it can be reinstated, asset forfeiture laws must be amended to protect Americans from rogue actors in law enforcement who seek improved work conditions at the expense of law-abiding citizens. Stiff criminal penalties for abuse are essential. These officers soil the reputations of the 99% who honorably serve the people.