Hello and welcome to the first installment of In Theory here at The Eclectic Eccentric, a series that will focus on things in our society that were designed to work a certain way but for whatever reason don’t. Fair warning due to the unavoidable reality that the “whatever reason” I just referenced almost always ends up being corruption, ignorance, or stupidity the things that I cover will inevitably be things that really piss me off. I will endeavor to remain objective in my explanations and reasoning but I may not be as tactful in my conclusions. And as promised we jump in with something that pisses me off to no end: Civil Asset Forfeiture.
Civil asset forfeiture is a process by which the government confiscates property that it believes has either been used in the commission of a crime or has been procured as a result of a crime. In simpler terms is your caught smuggling drugs on your boat the police can seize that boat or if you buy a house with the money from your illegal gun-running hobby they can take that house. Those assets are then sold at auction with the proceeds going directly back into the coffers of the department that seized the assets. These laws were intended to be used as a way to attack criminal syndicates like drug cartels and terrorism rings where it hurts, their bottom line. Under those parameters the law makes sense. People shouldn’t be able to profit from their crimes. And using those seized assets to fund police departments alleviates the burden on the taxpayer. So in theory civil forfeiture laws should be a good thing. In practice however these laws are deeply flawed and infringe upon many of the same constitutional rights that these police departments are supposed to defend.
We will begin with the biggest flaw in the system: You don’t need to have to have been convicted of a crime for your property to be seized. That’s right the mere suspicion of a crime is enough to get your property forcibly taken from you by the police. And if the government taking your property without due process isn’t a violation of the constitution I don’t even know what country I’m living in anymore.
While that may be the biggest flaw in the system it is far from being the only one. Once your property has been seized it is your responsibility to prove that it was not used in the commission of a crime or the ill-gotten gains of your criminal lifestyle. While you may still be innocent until proven guilty your property is not. So the average citizen must pony up the money to out lawyer the United States government which is hard enough before taking into account the five thousand dollar emergency fund they seized from your glove box when you got pulled over for speeding because you were late getting from your first job to your second job. What happens when you run out of money to pay a lawyer to get your stuff back? Why it gets used to fund the same people who took your stuff in the first place, which is the exact definition of a conflict of interest. Police officers are upholders of a sacred trust. To objectively uphold the law and protect ordinary citizens. They must remain neutral in all matters. By incentivizing them to arrest people you create more arrests. Basic economic theory aka common sense. Unfortunately while there are many anecdotal stories of abuse, statistics are hard to come by because of the lax data collection and reporting procedures followed (or not followed) by police departments across the country.
So can Civil Forfeiture laws be fixed? Maybe. It’s a hard sell because there are so many awful abuses out there but two fixes should be implemented immediately. The first is that asset seizure should only be allowed to be carried out when a conviction has been obtained. The second is that the money obtained from these laws should not be used to directly fund the departments who seize them instead they should be redirected towards youth outreach programs, education initiatives, or really anywhere that doesn’t involve the people seizing the property to directly benefit from its seizure. This way we de-incentivize the execution of these laws. After that? I can’t really say. When the dust settles from those two changes there will certainly still be abuse but it might actually find itself in a reasonable range to be further reined in by oversight. Or the entire process of civil forfeiture may just be far too tainted to be salvaged. What I do know is that how civil forfeiture works in theory and how it currently works in practice are worlds apart and that is something that needs to be addressed immediately and aggressively.
If you’d like to learn more (and you should) here are a couple of links to get you started: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3kEpZWGgJks