In the United States the Constitution and the Bill of Rights are supposed to protect citizens from seizure of property by the government without due process of law. However, did you know that during the war on drugs in the 1980’s and 1990’s that a practice known as civil forfeiture became common wherein law enforcement can seize assets including property and money that is believed to have been obtained from illegal drug trafficking. Unfortunately, the burden of proof may be on the accused to prove that their assets were not gained in such a manner which sounds a lot like guilty until proven innocent. Hence, some branches of government have found this an easy way to make some needed money.
An interesting article linked below details some of the abuses of the civil forfeiture process. Shockingly these include cases of authorities seizing and evicting a family after their teenage son is accused of selling $40 worth of drugs outside of their home. Cars can be seized, homes can be seized.
The Philadelphia District Attorney’s office is a particularly clear example of how easy it is to abuse the power of civil forfeiture when there is the allure of easy money. The article explains how the Philadelphia District Attorney’s office collected over $64 million over a ten year period via evictions of homeowners without notice or hearing. They then proceeded to sell these homes. Shockingly, $25 million of this money was used to pay salaries which also included the prosecutors handling the forfeiture cases. Clearly, civil forfeiture became a tool to gather extra money that could be used to fill budget gaps.
There are some fighting for a fairer approach. The Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration act (FAIR) has been re-introduced at the national level. The FAIR act would push the burden of proof to the government to prove that property was used knowingly in a crime. The FAIR act would also require seized assets to be turned over to the U.S. Treasury so that there is no financial incentive for local law enforcement agencies to engage in this practice. The hope is that this will result in the correct use of civil forfeiture, not as a money machine.
Where there is easy money there is always the possibility of abuse. If you are ever involved in a civil forfeiture case remember to immediately contact a qualified attorney to aid in your defense.