What is civil asset forfeiture? The best explanation is provided by the Institute for Justice who researches and follows this issue.
Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture
Civil forfeiture laws represent one of the most serious assaults on private property rights in the nation today. Under civil forfeiture, police and prosecutors can seize your car or other property, sell it and use the proceeds to fund agency budgets—all without so much as charging you with a crime. Unlike criminal forfeiture, where property is taken after its owner has been found guilty in a court of law, with civil forfeiture, owners need not be charged with or convicted of a crime to lose homes, cars, cash or other property.It's crucial to understand the difference between civil asset forfeiture and criminal asset forfeiture. With civil asset forfeiture, a person doesn't even have to commit a crime or be convicted of a crime. The government at the federal, state, city and county level have the legal authority to just steal and keep whatever they want and legal recourse for the victim can be difficult, time consuming and legally expensive.
Americans are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but civil forfeiture turns that principle on its head. With civil forfeiture, your property is guilty until you prove it innocent.
Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture chronicles how state and federal laws leave innocent property owners vulnerable to forfeiture abuse and encourage law enforcement to take property to boost their budgets. The report finds that by giving law enforcement a direct financial stake in forfeiture efforts, most state and federal laws encourage policing for profit, not justice.
The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has also addressed the issue of civil asset forfeiture.
Easy Money: Civil Asset Forfeiture Abuse by Police
On November 18, 2009, Shukree Simmons, who is African-American, was driving with his business partner on the highway from Macon, Georgia, back to Atlanta after selling his cherished Chevy Silverado truck to a restaurant owner in Macon for $3,700 of sorely needed funds. As Mr. Simmons passed through Lamar County, he was pulled over by two patrol officers who stated no reason for the stop, but instead asked Mr. Simmons numerous questions about where he was going and where he had been, and even separated him from his business partner for extended questioning. The officers searched both people and the car, finding no evidence of any illegal activity. A drug dog sniffed the car and did not indicate the presence of any trace of drugs. Notwithstanding the total lack of evidence of criminal activity and Mr. Simmons’s explanation that he was carrying money from selling his truck, the officers confiscated the $3,700 on the suspicion that the funds were derived from illegal activity, pursuant to their authority under Georgia’s civil asset forfeiture law . Despite the fact that Mr. Simmons mailed his bill of sale and title for the truck to the officer, he was told over the phone that he would need to file a legal claim to get his money back.Cases such as the horror experienced by Mr. Simmons are not at all unusual or even rare. Reason.com cites another horrifying example of civil asset forfeiture.
For most people in Mr. Simmons’s position, the story would end there. To challenge this activity and get their money back, victims of seizures bear the burden of initiating a claim for the money. If no claim is filed, the police can keep the money. It is unlikely that regular folks whose money is taken will be equipped to seek out the appropriate statute and comply with the requirements for making a claim. While lawyers are available to do this work, the price is high — in Georgia, a standard retainer fee is $5,000. Many people lack the resources to pay that price, and even if they had them, it would not make sense to pay more than the value of the seized funds.
Luckily for Mr. Simmons, he spoke to a lawyer who referred his case to the ACLU...
The Forfeiture Racket, Police and prosecutors won't give up their license to steal.
Around 3 in the morning on January 7, 2009, a 22-year-old college student named Anthony Smelley was pulled over on Interstate 70 in Putnam County, Indiana. He and two friends were en route from Detroit to visit Smelley’s aunt in St. Louis. Smelley, who had recently received a $50,000 settlement from a car accident, was carrying around $17,500 in cash, according to later court documents. He claims he was bringing the money to buy a new car for his aunt.
The officer who pulled him over, Lt. Dwight Simmons of the Putnam County Sheriff’s Department, said that Smelley had made an unsafe lane change and was driving with an obscured license plate. When Simmons asked for a driver’s license, Smelley told him he had lost it after the accident. Simmons called in Smelley’s name and discovered that his license had actually expired. The policeman asked Smelley to come out of the car, patted him down, and discovered a large roll of cash in his front pocket, in direct contradiction to Smelley’s alleged statement in initial questioning that he wasn’t, in fact, carrying much money.
A record check indicated that Smelley had previously been arrested (though not charged) for drug possession as a teenager, so the officer called in a K-9 unit to sniff the car for drugs. According to the police report, the dog gave two indications that narcotics might be present. So Smelley and his passengers were detained and the police seized Smelley’s $17,500 cash under Indiana’s asset forfeiture law.
But a subsequent hand search of the car turned up nothing except an empty glass pipe containing no drug residue in the purse of Smelley’s girlfriend. Lacking any other evidence, police never charged anybody in the car with a drug-related crime. Yet not only did Putnam County continue to hold onto Smelley’s money, but the authorities initiated legal proceedings to confiscate it permanently.
Smelley’s case was no isolated incident. Over the past three decades, it has become routine in the United States for state, local, and federal governments to seize the property of people who were never even charged with, much less convicted of, a crime. Nearly every year, according to Justice Department statistics, the federal government sets new records for asset forfeiture. And under many state laws, the situation is even worse: State officials can seize property without a warrant and need only show “probable cause” that the booty was connected to a drug crime in order to keep it, as opposed to the criminal standard of proof “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Instead of being innocent until proven guilty, owners of seized property all too often have a heavier burden of proof than the government officials who stole their stuff.Banksters aren't the only crime syndicate in America with a license to steal. The police and prosecutors routinely steal and they almost always steal exclusively from poor and middle class folks who don't have the resources to fight back.
Municipalities have come to rely on confiscated property for revenue. Police and prosecutors use forfeiture proceeds to fund not only general operations but junkets, parties, and swank office equipment. A cottage industry has sprung up to offer law enforcement agencies instruction on how to take and keep property more efficiently. And in Indiana, where Anthony Smelley is still fighting to get his money back, forfeiture proceeds are enriching attorneys who don’t even hold public office, a practice that violates the U.S. Constitution.
Not much of anything is being done about it either. Folks really need to start aggressively lobbying their state legislatures to pass laws outlawing the practice of civil asset forfeiture.