On his way to purchase equipment for Smoking Roosters, his fledgling BBQ restaurant, in Staunton, Va., in August 2012, Mandrel Stuart was pulled over for having tinted windows and a video playing in the back seat of his SUV.
He was handcuffed and detained for two hours without having any charges filed, but found his duffle bag $17,550 lighter after police took his money despite no evidence of his having broken any laws. Such is the incivility of civil asset forfeiture.
The prosecutors offered to settle the case and return half of Stuart’s money. “I paid taxes on that money. I worked for that money,” Stuart told The Washington Post, which reported on his case. “Why should I give them my money?”
Determined to get his cash returned, he took the government to court and won. The jury awarded him his money back. The government also had to pay his lawyer’s fees.
Though ultimately victorious in his 14-month ordeal, it was something of a Pyrrhic victory: Stuart still lost his restaurant. Without the cash, he couldn’t pay the rent or bills and had to shut down Smoking Roosters.
As egregious as Stuart’s case was, it’s just one of many examples of government abuse of civil asset forfeiture across the nation where the law failed to uphold the most basic of American rights — the right to due process under the law.
This case also illustrates the perverse law enforcement profit incentive, which allows a government entity to seize an individual’s property without ever charging him or her with a crime. Proceeds from the sale of the forfeited property and cash seized often go back to the police departments and prosecutors’ offices that took them. That’s nothing if not a flagrant conflict of interest.
This most vivid example of government overreach and unchecked power should be a wake-up call to conservatives to support policies that restore due process and overhaul a system that allows “innocent until proven guilty” to be turned on its head.
Currently, more than three-quarters of the states and the federal government allow law enforcement to keep some or all of the proceeds from civil forfeitures. On the federal side, the federal government has seized more than $2.5 billion through 60,000 cash seizures since 2001, and more than 80 percent of those individuals were never charged with a crime.
Both law enforcement and government agencies claim that civil asset forfeiture is a vital tool needed to fight drug crimes and keep communities safe, and in this era of budget cutbacks for law enforcement, where agencies face personnel and resource shortfalls, it makes for a compelling argument.
However, there are plenty of laws in place allowing the seizure of funds and property from real criminals and criminal enterprises proven guilty in a court of law to have been using the funds and property in the commission of criminal activity.
More and better safeguards need to be in place at the federal and state level to protect property owners who haven’t committed any crimes. The right of due process is a sacred right that our Founders held dear and one that a just and fair legal system should always look to uphold.
Several states have already taken the initiative to reform the practice, most recently Montana and New Mexico. Both enacted reforms requiring a criminal conviction before government can seize someone’s property.
Regrettably, however, Montana and New Mexico are among just a handful of states that have restored civility to the civil asset forfeiture process. Policymakers at both the federal level and in the other states should emphasize due process and strengthening personal property rights, limit government seizures of property to cases involving criminal convictions, and provide fair and swift procedures for owners to get their property back promptly.
Lance Lemmonds is senior policy adviser for the Coalition For Public Safety.