A law today that represents one of the most serious assaults on private property rights is that of civil asset forfeiture. The government can seize an individual’s car, home, cash and other property without ever charging or convicting him of a crime. Unlike criminal forfeiture in which property is confiscated by the government after the owner has been found guilty in a court of law, in civil forfeiture the property owner may never be charged or convicted of a crime and may still never regain his property.
Unfortunately for those who have had their property seized by the government, one of the basic rights of being an American citizen is denied – the right of innocent until proven guilty. When the government has seized your property due to civil forfeiture, you must go to court against the Justice Department and prove your innocence before your property may be returned. Due to the expense involved in taking on the United States Department of Justice in a court of law, the majority of Americans who have had their property seized by civil forfeiture will do nothing.
Civil forfeiture law was expanded immensely during the 1980’s war on drugs in this country. In 1986, two years after the DOJ’s Asset Forfeiture Fund was created, the fund took in almost $94 million in proceeds from forfeited assets. By 2008, the amount of proceeds from forfeited assets grew to over $1 billion. The total net assets seized, according to the DOJ, in fiscal year 2012 exceeded $4.2 billion.
Civil asset forfeitures are lining the pockets of federal, state and local law enforcement agencies. The forfeiture laws allow up to eighty percent of confiscated assets to be converted into cash to fund the organizations that seized the property, and unfortunately this type of system leads to rampant abuse.
For example, some police have conducted “reverse” sting operations in which they pose as drug dealers to lure buyers with promises of cheap drugs. The officers then, once the deals go down, bust the buyers and then using civil forfeiture laws, seize their cash and cars.
Asset forfeiture has been derided for years by civil rights groups who argue that it is an unfair law that allows law enforcement agencies to wrongly keep and use the money they get by confiscating citizen’s funds and property. Private property in our nation will be at risk until changes in civil forfeiture laws are made. Our government should not be allowed to use civil forfeiture to seize property from citizens without due process of law. The outcome of the civil forfeiture laws in our country, according to the Institute for Justice, “is a system that rewards policing for profit.”