of Civil Forfeiture
Federal and state civil forfeiture laws authorize police to seize property which may have beenused or obtained through criminal conduct even if the owner has never been convicted or evencharged with any crime. The abuse of civil forfeiture laws by local, state and federal officials
has become a subject of genuine concern and discussion. [See Sarah Stillman’s
The New Yorker
; and, Eapen
article of 8/5/13 on the Americans for Forfeiture Reform web site.]These articles document how civil forfeiture is now j
ust a way for officials to “shake down” and
take from innocent citizens. According to Stillman, now even many police, prosecutors, judges
and other officials are concerned that, “. . . laws designed to go after high
-flying crime lords areroutinely targeting the workaday homes, cars, cash savings, and other belongings of innocent
people who are never charged with a crime.”
Other officials are apparently more interested inthe additional income civil forfeiture generates for their agencies.Since the arrival of civil forfeiture laws in their modern form during the 1970s, governmentshave substantially increased their revenues from such forfeitures. For instance, the federal
government’s proceeds from civil forfeitures in 1985 totaled $27
million. By 2012 those proceeds had grown to $4.2 billion. The economics seem simple: governments only have to
prosecute those crimes they want to but they can still obtain income from those they don’t charge
or prosecute.The genius of these statutes is the legal burden it places on a person to justify their possession of their own property.
It’s the citizen who must establish that they legally own their own property.Stillman’s
article gives specifics of how
government agencies often use “cash
freedom” deals to individuals possessing significant amounts of cash or other valuables
stopped by police: i.e., the police won’t arrest you or charge you with any crime provided you
agree to forfeit your cash or valuables.Civil forfeiture laws are used to take homes from their owners because someone else living in thehome, such as a child, was found possessing small amounts of drugs; even if the offending childis never charged with a crime. Civil forfeiture laws are also used to take cars from their owners
even when the legal owner isn’t driving the car when it’s taken.
In Philadelphia, Pennsylvania the city auctioneer estimates that approximately 100 private homesare taken by civil forfeiture and sold each year. Generally the homes taken through civilforfeiture belong to low income African-Americans and Hispanics while the more valuablehomes of affluent citizens are generally ignored.
An owner of cash or valuables taken by the police can’t recover t
heir attorney fees and courtcosts incurred in contesting a wrongful seizure even if they win. The expense of contesting awrongful seizure often exceeds the amount taken.
Sometimes it’s necessary to pay a fee or bond
just to preserve property from auction until its forfeiture can be challenged. The legal process of challenging a forfeiture can take years in some cases.