Arlington, Va.—Civil forfeiture is one of the biggest threats to property rights in America today. It allows law enforcement to take cash, cars, homes and other property of Americans without so much as charging —let alone convicting—the owner with a crime and then profit from the proceeds. In the last week, legislators in both the House and Senate introduced legislation to reform federal forfeiture laws and the Daily Show with Jon Stewart exposed the practice as “Highway-Robbing Highway Patrolmen.”
With that as a backdrop, the Institute for Justice (IJ), the national law firm for liberty, is launching an online effort focused on radically reforming—or altogether ending—civil forfeiture laws throughout the country.
Visit the initiative’s website: EndForfeiture.com
“When Americans learn that law enforcement officials can take their property without convicting them of a crime, they are outraged and want the practice to stop,” said Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Scott Bullock. “This online initiative educates citizens about the pernicious practice of civil forfeiture and what they can do to fight back.”
Two fundamental problems lie at the heart of civil forfeiture laws. First, 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 can prove it innocent.
Moreover, as documented in IJ’s 2010 report, Policing for Profit, state and federal laws give police and prosecutors a direct incentive to seize and keep cash and property in order to pad their budgets. For example, investigators in Georgia found more than $700,000 in questionable expenses by Camden County’s sheriff between 2004 and 2008, including a $90,000 Dodge Viper and a $79,000 boat. In fact, only eight states prohibit law enforcement agencies from keeping the property they seize.
“Forfeiture reform is desperately needed in nearly all states and at the federal level,” continued Bullock. “People shouldn’t lose their property without being convicted of a crime, and law enforcement shouldn’t be able to profit from other people’s property. This online initiative provides citizens with the ability to learn about and become active in the fight against civil forfeiture in the courts of law, the court of public opinion, and at the grassroots.”
IJ has already successfully represented three property owners in their fight to get their property back from the government. IJ fought on behalf of a motel owner in Tewksbury, Mass., after law enforcement teamed up with the feds to take his family-run motel; a property owner in Anaheim, Calif., who almost lost his $1.5 million office building because he rented space to a medical marijuana dispensary that was legal under state law; and a Michigan grocery store owner who had his entire bank account seized by the IRS. In another IJ case, three justices of the Supreme Court of Texas harshly criticized civil forfeiture and called for changes in the law.
Recently, two different bills were introduced by Senator Rand Paul and Rep. Tim Walberg that would substantially reform federal civil forfeiture laws. SB 2644, the FAIR (Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration) Act would eliminate the profit incentive altogether under federal forfeiture law and raise the burden of proof on the government in civil forfeiture proceedings. H.R. 5212, the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act, would also raise the burden of proof on the government while also ensuring that the federal government respect state laws when distributing civil forfeiture proceeds.