Civil asset forfeiture has been around in one form another for hundreds of years, however we will be discussing the federal law that came about as a part of the “Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984”. This act allowed the forfeiture of assets of persons suspected of a crime or of assets that were suspected of being used in a crime. This act was intended to counteract the vast drug trade which had primarily switched to using bulk amounts of cash as payment. Civil asset forfeiture allows the federal government and local police agencies to seize the assets of an individual if they suspect the assets were involved in, or were intended to be used in a criminal act. The assets are then distributed among the local police and the federal government and are sent directly to the seizing agencies budget. The original thinking was to use the drug cartels money to help fight them. This, however, has long since been lost in a large number of municipalities and the law is now used in morally and legally questionable ways.
The civil asset forfeiture law is once again come to the forefront of national discussion as Attorney General Sessions gave a directive and made statements concerning the aggressive expanding of the civil asset forfeiture program. Sessions discussed adding two controls to the program; one is a requirement for more detail on the probable cause statements from local police, and the other is that there can be no seizures of less than $10,000 without an arrest or an arrest warrant.
Critics of this law say that it violates the person’s 4th amendment constitutional rights against illegal search and seizure, but the courts have continuously upheld cases involving the legality of the civil forfeiture process. I don’t fully understand the courts decisions on how it doesn’t violate someone’s rights when assets can be seized without a criminal charge, but since it’s technically a civil case and not a criminal case I suppose that’s why they rule in favor of the law as it is written.
Proponents will say the law helps to fight crime and allows the police forces to help expand their fight even more by seizing these criminal assets in order to improve their own budgets and therefore make them more effective. There is virtually no research done as to whether or not this is an effective mean of helping to limit/fight crime, so the effectiveness of this law is impossible to fully know.
I have an issue with police agencies conducting operations that have a very tangible benefit for themselves. It creates a massive conflict of interest, and for that reason alone the programs should be disallowed. The vague nature of the law also allows for significant abuses and very little recourse for the person to ever recover their property. Until the new $10,000 limit set by sessions the law also predominately hurt poor and impoverished persons rather than the organized criminals it was intended to affect.
The fact that these cases are civil suits also makes fighting the case much harder. In a criminal case the level of evidence is required is that which would prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, whereas in a civil case it is much lower and simply requires a preponderance of the evidence to decide guilt. That lower standard, and the fact that often times the value of the seized property is less than what it would take to get back with legal fees, means even in many of the cases where it could be legally challenged it isn’t because it’s too costly for the person to retrieve their property.
Politicians from both sides of the aisle are against this law and have proposed measures to limit its scale and use, but the Justice department wants to see its use expanded. I hope that states will make their own judgements and put greater restrictions on local police departments to prohibit their using this morally questionable tactic in fighting crime, since clearly the federal government can’t be trusted to do so.