The government took away a woman’s car in Detroit after she dropped off her friend at a bank, where her friend made eye contact with other drivers in the parking lot. She had no criminal record. The justification used for confiscating the car? Police mistook her friend for a prostitute.
It turned into a living nightmare. She fought for her car and eventually got it back after paying over $1,000 in fines and fees, even though she didn’t break any laws.
Billions of dollars in assets are seized every year by the government with little to no justification whatsoever. Many people never see their stuff again.
The government can do this through civil asset forfeiture and the scary part is that you could be targeted next, even if you’ve never committed a crime.
In forfeiture cases, convicted criminals receive more promises of legality and fair proceedings with due process than those who aren’t even charged with a crime.
In criminal asset forfeiture cases, an individual is convicted of a crime, the property is directly related to the crime and the property is confiscated after the conviction. But under civil asset forfeiture, the government can still take your property even if there isn’t a criminal conviction, or charge. As a result, victims of civil asset forfeiture are held to a complicated process where they are forced to prove the innocence and legality of their property.
Civil asset forfeiture cases outpace criminal forfeiture. From 1997 to 2013, 87 percent of the DOJ’s forfeitures were civil asset forfeitures. The combined forfeiture funds of the DOJ and Treasury Department raked in $29 billion from 2001 to 2014, a 1000 percent increase in annual revenue. The problem is so pervasive that in 2014, the government reportedly stole more than burglars. It is clear that the government leeches off of lower burdens of proof to confiscate assets.
Police should be able to collect evidence and confiscate property and wealth that was generated illegally. But seizures also should be limited to convicted criminals so innocent individuals do not lose their entire livelihoods with little evidence of wrongdoing under civil asset forfeiture.
Some states like North Carolina, New Mexico and Nebraska did the right thing and abolished the practice altogether. Numerous other states have passed other reforms to limit civil asset forfeiture. Nevertheless, the federal government still works around state laws through what is called an “Equitable Sharing Program” which allows state and local law enforcement to keep up to 80 percent of assets if they give the rest to the federal government.
The federal government briefly imposed some limits on civil asset forfeiture under Attorney General Eric Holder. At the time, the Justice Department set a policy that prohibited federal government from accepting civil assets seized by state and local governments unless the property was connected to a convicted crime.
But, the federal government quickly shifted course under Attorney General Jeff Sessions by reviving the Justice Department’s Equitable Sharing Program that allows state and local agencies to seize assets and transfer them to federal control, even if states have laws that prevent civil asset forfeiture. The controversial program is still on the books.
With the First Step Act passed in January, the U.S. is moving in the right direction on criminal justice reform. But we must keep up the momentum by eliminating civil asset forfeiture. Confiscation of property without due process of law directly contradicts our founding principles of life, liberty and property.
Grover Norquist (@GroverNorquist) is president of Americans for Tax Reform.
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.