How would you feel if police stopped your car or raided your home and accused you of engaging in criminal behavior, and you knew that that is the farthest thing from the truth? Would you feel worse if they started searching through your things? What if the police took your money and valuables, claiming them to be contraband that connected to a crime? It seems like something that would only happen in Nazi Germany, but this abuse of power (which is a monumental understatement) happens all-too-often around the country – even in Pennsylvania.
The New Yorker recently published an excellent article about civil-asset forfeiture that is worth reading. In the article are several examples of people who did not commit any crimes at all, only to have their homes, cars, and belongings seized and sold. Examples of this are a West Philadelphia family whose home was seized after the adult son sold $20 of marijuana three times to a confidential informant at the house, and numerous instances of people who were pulled over while driving for an insignificant traffic violation, had a piece of property or their entire car seized, and were allowed to leave with just a traffic ticket and no explanation of how to get their property back.
How can this be? How can police departments and other government agencies get away with essentially stealing the property of law-abiding citizens? To answer this question, it is important to understand two fundamentals of civil-asset forfeiture that allow it to operate in the way that it does:
First, civil-asset forfeiture is a lawsuit against property, not against the person. This results in case names that sound made up. United States v. One Pearl Necklace and United States v. Approximately 64,695 Pounds of Shark Fins are two real-life examples. Silly case names aside, this has very real implications: Personal property does not have the same constitutional protections as people, is not innocent until proven guilty, and is not entitled to an attorney.
Second, civil-asset forfeiture, as evidenced by the name of it, is not part of criminal proceedings. As such, a person need not be found guilty of a crime to have his or her property seized. They also need not be charged or even accused of committing a crime to have property seized. The rationale for this is that people may unknowingly be transporting or possessing the contraband of another person. In most states, all that is required for an item to be seized by police is (the equivalent of) probable cause that the item is connected to criminal activity. So knowing this, how did the practice start?
Soon after adoption of the Fourth and Fourteenth Amendments, which forbade unreasonable searches and seizures and promised that no one would be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process, it became clear that this would be problematic in some situations. Pirate and smuggler ships, whose owner may be in another continent, ostensibly were “unseizable”. Congress authorized civil-forfeiture actions which allowed for seizure in these circumstances. This was the beginning of civil-asset forfeiture in America.
Fast-forward a couple centuries. In order to seize property from mobsters that could not be easily seized through criminal proceedings, Congress enacted federal statutes in the 1970s that allowed for property that was purchased through tainted money to be seized by law enforcement. This process was not used widely until Congress passed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act in 1984, which established a national fund that the proceeds from civil-asset forfeiture would go into. Policing turned into a business, and seizing property turned into a lucrative scheme that pays salaries and provides vehicles and other equipment to police departments. Through the decades the practice has remained largely unchecked, with innocent citizens being stripped of their property when police deem fit. Sometimes it is not cost-effective to hire a lawyer to have the items returned, and other times the system is rigged so heavily that it would be a fruitless venture to even try. The process has been exploited so egregiously, the extent of which can only be grasped by reading the New Yorker article. Innocent people are having their property stolen by the government and there’s nothing they can do about it.
Bringing things full-circle, this practice occurs right in our backyard. In Montgomery and Bucks Counties, police frequently seize guns that are lawfully owned. Since the guns are often valued at $500 or less, it makes it prohibitively expensive to hire a lawyer to reclaim it. The result of this, like in counties across the country, is owners essentially abandoning their items. Civil-asset forfeiture occurs to some extent all across the country, with our area of Pennsylvania being no exception.
What do you think about civil-asset forfeiture? Please let us know in the comment section.