Civil asset forfeiture is one of the most dangerous assaults on private property rights occurring in America today. Under civil forfeiture, police and prosecutors can take property without so much as charging the owner with a crime—and then profit from the proceeds.
Consider a recent case in which a Kyle and Berekti Jones lost $35,000 to the federal government at an airport in Houston when they tried to take cash on a trip to Berekti’s homeland of Ethiopia with their infant daughter.
It is illegal to carry more than $10,000 in cash overseas without informing authorities in the United States. So when they arrived at the airport they told Homeland Security officers they had a lot of cash and cooperated with officers searching their baggage. When one officer asked how much, Kyle Jones said he wasn’t sure but would “guess” it was about $20,000. The officer wrote it down on a form and insisted Jones sign it immediately, which he did.
The family was moved to another room, detained and searched further, causing them to miss their flight. A little more than $15,000 in cash was found, along with another $20,000, not in cash but travelers’ checks, spread out among their pieces of luggage. The family hid none of this. They cooperated fully, pointing out where the money was located. The family was not formally charged with violating the law, but officers accused the family of a deliberate failure to report and demanded the entire amount be forfeited.
The Jones were guilty of no crime, but civil asset forfeiture laws turn the American ideal of innocent until proven guilty on its head. Law enforcement officials can take cash and other property—even from innocent property owners never even charged with a crime. Once taken, innocent owners bear the expensive burden of mounting a lawsuit against the government to prove their innocence in order to get their property back.
The Jones’ did sue and after waging an expensive battle against the United States in federal court they eventually got their money back. A U.S. District Court Judge determined that no crime was committed, that the Jones’ did not—and did not intend to—violate the law, but that Homeland Security agents “played agency games, abused the people they are to serve, and violated their oaths to support the Constitution” in order to take the Jones’ money for the benefit of their agency.
This kind of behavior is increasingly common, however, because law enforcement agencies have a direct—and perverse—financial incentive to seek out forfeitures and abuse the laws. Under federal and many state civil forfeiture laws the government agencies that seize the money get to keep most of it for their own budgets.
In a case being fought by the Institute for Justice and Russell and Patricia Caswell in Tewksbury, Mass., for instance, law enforcement agencies are trying to rake in more than a million dollars by forfeiting the Caswells’ family-owned motel. The property has been in the Caswell family for more than 60 years and is now mortgage free—the Caswell family always imagined the property would support them in retirement. But because a handful of people have been arrested at the motel for drug crimes during the past decade federal law enforcement agencies are seeking to forfeit the entire property and split the proceeds between federal agencies and the local Tewksbury, Mass., police department. Local police admit that the Caswells are not involved in any crime. They have never been charged, let alone convicted of any wrongdoing by any law enforcement agency.
Forfeiture abuses have exploded all across the country in recent years. Last year alone federal agencies seized approximately $1.6 billion in assets.
This is a dangerous trend that needs to end. Civil forfeiture laws that allow police to profit from seizures undermine fair and impartial law enforcement. These laws destroy the American ideal of innocent until proven guilty and unjustly take property from innocent owners.
Larry Salzman is an Institute for Justice attorney.
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Joseph Hammond
Source: AFF Doublethink Online | Emma Elliott Freire