UncategorizedThe Power and Pitfalls of Civil Asset Forfeiture Laws

April 28, 2024

Civil asset forfeiture laws allow law enforcement agencies to seize assets, including cash, cars, homes, and other property, if they suspect the assets are connected to criminal activity. Supporters of these laws argue they are a vital tool for fighting crime by hitting criminals “where it hurts” – in their wallets and assets. However, civil forfeiture has also come under fire for its lack of protections for property owners and the perverse incentives it creates for policing for profit rather than public safety. This article examines the origins of civil forfeiture, its current legal framework, criticisms of the practice, calls for reform, and what to do if your assets are seized.

A Brief History

Civil asset forfeiture has its origins in maritime law in the early days of the American Republic. If a ship owner or captain was engaged in piracy or smuggling, the government could seize and forfeit the ship and its cargo through a civil proceeding. This practice was later extended to other criminal activities as a way to fight them by confiscating their tools and proceeds. Civil forfeiture expanded greatly during the early 1980s War on Drugs, based on the legal theory that property itself can be “guilty” of a crime, regardless of its owner’s guilt or innocence. Today, every state and the federal government has civil forfeiture laws allowing seizures without criminal convictions.

The Legal Standard

Civil forfeiture cases are brought against property in civil court rather than criminal court. This means the legal standard is much lower – law enforcement only needs probable cause to believe the assets are connected to criminal activity, rather than the beyond a reasonable doubt standard used in criminal trials. The property owner must then prove the “innocence” of their property to get it back, effectively turning the presumption of innocence on its head. It can be very difficult for owners to challenge forfeitures, leading many to simply give up rather than fight lengthy legal battles against the government’s resources.

Policing for Profit?

A major criticism of civil forfeiture is that when law enforcement agencies get to keep the cash and proceeds from assets they seize, it creates a profit incentive and conflicts of interest around seizures. There have been many instances of questionable asset seizures from people never charged with or convicted of crimes, leading to accusations of “policing for profit.” Cash seizures under $10,000 that would not be economical to challenge in court make up a large portion of forfeitures. There are also racial disparities – a 2020 study found that Black and Hispanic drivers were more likely to have their cash seized during traffic stops despite similar contraband hit rates across races.

Disproportionate Impact on Vulnerable Communities

One major criticism of civil asset forfeiture laws is their disproportionate impact on already vulnerable groups. Low income communities and communities of color appear to bear the brunt of aggressive seizure practices. With fewer resources to fight back legally, many in these communities simply give up on ever recovering their assets when faced with drawn-out court battles against the government. This compounds economic hardship and a sense of injustice. There are also power imbalances between wealthy corporations able to fend off seizures through high-powered legal teams versus regular people lacking the means to challenge questionable forfeitures.

Roadside Cash Seizures

Many questionable asset forfeiture cases involve roadside cash seizures during traffic stops under the pretense of alleged drug activity with little evidence. The DEA even educated state and local law enforcement on techniques to use during stops to try to connect cash to drug sales and seize it through civil forfeiture, bypassing stricter state laws. Defense lawyers call these “highway interdiction training” stops that are essentially fishing expeditions for seizable assets based on minor traffic violations. They argue it reflects an unconstitutional motives-based approach to initiate stops and seizures instead of any legitimate law enforcement purpose around road safety.

Calls for Reform

In recent years there has been increasing scrutiny and calls for reform of civil forfeiture laws at both state and federal levels. Critics argue the laws lack due process protections, improperly shift the burden of proof, and create distorted incentives around seizures. Reforms have included higher legal standards before assets can be seized, requiring criminal convictions before forfeitures, restricting how seizure revenue can be used, and improving reporting and transparency around seizures. Several states have passed laws banning civil forfeiture or significantly raising the legal bar. However, practices still vary widely across different states and local jurisdictions.

If Your Assets Are Seized

If you find your cash, vehicle, home, bank account or other assets suddenly seized through civil forfeiture, don’t panic, but also don’t wait to act. Contact a local attorney who specializes in civil liberties and forfeitures right away. An experienced lawyer can advise you on the forfeiture laws and procedures in your state, build the strongest case possible to get your property back and fight questionable seizures. Don’t let law enforcement intimidate you or talk you into signing away rights to your property without understanding the consequences or pushing back on improper seizures. With our help, you may be able to regain control of your seized assets or receive compensation.

Civil asset forfeiture laws were created to fight crime by confiscating its tools and profits. But without proper oversight and protections for property owners, these laws can be abused at the expense of civil rights and liberties. If you find your property targeted by overzealous law enforcement focused more on padding budgets than public safety, don’t hesitate to stand up for your rights. Speak to an attorney from Glober + Glober right away about challenging improper civil asset forfeitures and regaining your seized assets. We will fight on your behalf. With legal help, justice may still prevail.

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