If you are suspected of committing a crime in the United States, you are guaranteed the right to a trial by jury, where prosecutors must prove your guilt beyond any reasonable doubt. This is found within the 4th amendment of the US Constitution, “nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” The 6th amendment follows this process by requiring a speedy trial, since the legal process mentioned above, often means waiting in jail until your trial happens.
Generally the life and liberty of those accused is given due process, but when it comes to the property of someone who has committed a crime, even if it was a victimless crime, the police are legally allowed to take someone’s property and sell it for the police departments own use. This process is known as Asset forfeiture.
In the US there are two types of asset forfeiture: criminal and civil. The first type, criminal asset forfeiture is the confiscation of material goods that are connected with criminal activity. It is carried out in the sentence following the conviction. The FBI justifies the practice of criminal asset forfeiture as:
“Many criminals are motivated by greed and acquisition of material goods. Therefore, the ability of the government to forfeit property connected with criminal activity can be an effective law enforcement tool by reducing the incentive for illegal conduct. Asset forfeiture ‘takes the profit out of crime’ by helping to eliminate the ability of the offender to command resources necessary to continue illegal activities. The use of asset forfeiture in criminal investigations aims to undermine the economic infrastructure of the criminal enterprise.”
The second type is civil asset forfeiture, in which the government sues the property of a person, not the person themselves, making them a 3rd party claimant effectively. Being a civil case, it means the burden is on the property owner to prove to the government why they should be allowed to keep their own property. Take the case of Zahar El-Ali, a Texas resident who sold his 2004 Chevrolet Silverado to someone on a payment plan, agreeing that once the last payment was made for the vehicle, that the title for it would then be given over to the new driver. One day, the driver who bought the truck was pulled over for a DUI, and the truck was consequently impounded. Since Mr. Ali still held the title to the truck, one might assume that the vehicle would have been promptly returned to him, but the state of Texas is using it’s asset forfeiture laws to keep the truck and put the burden of proof on Mr. Ali to prove the truck’s innocence in court. The ridiculousness of this kind of case is so obvious, it shouldn’t have to be stated. This is one of the main areas that the law firm, The Institute for Justice (IJ), battles against.
“Unlike criminal asset forfeiture, with civil forfeiture, a property owner need not be found guilty of a crime-or even charged-to permanently lose their cash, car, home, or other property”
In a national study titled “policing for profit: The abuse of civil asset forfeiture,” the IJ details many cases of abuse, and how much money and property is now being taken using this questionable method. The numbers speak for themselves to show the rise of this abuse of power. In 1986 the AFF (Asset Forfeiture Fund) was created to store all the confiscated funds. In its opening year, it brought $97.3 million in deposits. In 2008, the fund now holds over $1 billion in net assets. Most state and federal laws allow the agencies to pocket the confiscated funds, which naturally leads to abuse of this power. The confiscated funds have been used to buy things such as food, gifts, football tickets, even buying TV ads for a district attorney’s re-election campaign. And police departments cite the income from these forfeitures as if they are to expect at least an equivalent amount in the next year.
It isn’t hard to imagine that this might lead to some incentive for officers to confiscate more property, and perhaps spending more time and resources focused on non-violent crimes and offenders. The method is controversial, so much so that Tennessee lawmakers recently made the move to pass a bill which would abolish civil asset forfeiture.
Asset forfeiture is surely the cash cow of the drug war. Critics say the policy provides a strong incentive for police to find connections, however tenuous, between illegal drugs and other property. Unsurprisingly, there are countless stories of alleged forfeiture abuse, which even prompted Congress to revise the policy in 2000, but many claim that isn’t enough and the policy altogether should be abolished. Under this policy, even if you have a suspicious amount of cash, the cops can seize it, and it’s then on you to prove that the money isn’t connected to or being used for any crime. Although state laws regarding asset forfeiture vary, the practice known as “equitable sharing” , enables local and state police to keep up to 80 percent of the profits from selling off the property they seize from criminals. With rewards like that, who wouldn’t prioritize drug crime?