Civil Asset Forfeiture, Part 1

Attorney General Sessions recently announced reinstatement of provisions of civil asset forfeiture rolled back by the Obama administration.  He praised forfeiture as a powerful tool to help police and cited support from law enforcement throughout the country.  This is part of the Trump administration’s increased focus on fighting crime.

A criminal has no right to assets acquired through crime. He has no right to the car he stole from you.  It rightfully belongs to you.  If he sells the car he has no right to the money obtained.  That money rightfully belongs to you.  Similarly a robber has no right to money he stole from a bank.  A swindler has no right to money acquired by an elaborate securities fraud. A conglomerate has no right to money made selling counterfeit goods.

The benefits of civil asset forfeiture claimed by its proponents are numerous. It takes assets out of the hands of criminals so they can no longer be used for criminal activity.  Quick application prevents criminals from hiding assets so they can never be found.  It reduces assets the criminal can use to employ the best attorneys to get them off.  It provides assets which can be used to buy equipment needed by the police that seize the assets.  (On a TV crime show a Sherriff boasts he drives a Maserati seized from a drug dealer.)  In some cases seized assets are used to pay overtime and additional police.

The Obama administration scaled back asset forfeiture after complaints of abuses. Sessions reinstated them claiming only a “few” ever even applied to have their assets returned.  Why? Because most of them were drug assets and drug dealers don’t want to go to court to tell how they got those assets.

Well, just imagine you are one of the “few” that he doesn’t talk about. A drug dealer breaks into the shed in the back of your property and stashes drugs there. He’s caught by police.  To get a lighter sentence he tells them he stashed his drugs in your shed but to avoid an additional breaking and entering charge he says he paid you $1000 for the use of your shed.  He has nothing to seize but the drugs.  To the police you look wealthy. So, on a sworn statement that they had information you were paid to store illegal drugs on your property, a judge orders the seizure of your property.  A few days later your car payment bounces and you find your checking account balance is zero.  Your savings and brokerage accounts are drained.  You talk to police but they’re no help, they consider you a drug dealer.  You contact a lawyer but he wants a $7000 retainer to start. You don’t have $7000.  You ask about free legal help.  You haven’t been charged with a crime.  This is a civil matter. You are not provided an attorney for civil matters.  You think, I have equity in my house, but you find the house has been seized.  And then a tow truck hauls your car to the police impound.

You have lots of friends. Maybe they can help.  Many of your “friends” abandon you because you are associated with drug dealing.  Your loyal friends provide you with a car so you can get to work but your boss lets you go. He can’t have a drug dealer in his employ.  Your friends and family loan you a little money to get by.  So you decide to fight this injustice.  But your agony is just beginning. What you don’t know is that you have something like 30 days to file a claim on your property or lose the right to claim it forever.  If you make any mistake in filing you lose your claim forever.  If you file a proper claim you will have a hearing sometime in the future (maybe years) and not being convicted of a crime of drug dealing or even charged is not sufficient to prove that you were an innocent party.  In a civil case the government only has to have more evidence than you do.

If you think this is a bad script for a Hollywood horror movie check out this link at the Institute for Justice to read about real cases.


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