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Michael Haugen | May 13, 2015
A recent piece in the Washington Post highlights the amount of work yet to be done to curb the use of civil asset forfeiture among federal authorities, despite concurrent efforts taken by state legislatures to abandon the practice.
The Post‘s Christopher Ingraham points to the case of Joseph Rivers, an aspiring entrepreneur who is but one of many citizens to be subjected to the seizure of their property–in this case, $16,000 in seed money to start a music video business–before being convicted, or even charged with a crime. A mere suspicion of illegality is often times the only basis by which law enforcement authorities confiscate property.
Complicating such matters is the way that entities are viewed to have committed a crime. Unlike the forfeiture of property under criminal proceedings, in which people themselves are charged with a crime, civil forfeiture holds that the property itself is guilty of the crime. Because of this, the owner must demonstrate to the government that the property is innocent, instead of government proving–beyond a reasonable doubt–that the property is implicated in a criminal offense, and therefore subject to legitimate seizure. This situation runs afoul of a citizen’s long-held presumption of innocence and due process rights under the 5th Amendment.
According to the article, River’s was suspected by DEA agents of being involved in the drug trade after discovering the money during a search of his belongings on a train to Los Angeles. Despite not finding any further evidence to support the charge–no actual drugs or weapons were found–his money, still in a bank envelope, was nonetheless seized.
Mr. River’s difficulties come at a time when increased scrutiny has come to bear on asset forfeiture. Within the last month, both Montana and New Mexico have reformed their practices, requiring that a criminal conviction be levied before property can be seized. Unfortunately, despite former Attorney General Eric Holder announcing measures to curb some uses of civil forfeiture, little has been done at the federal level so far to protect innocent property owners from falling victim to the practice, which has been a significant windfall for law enforcement agencies:
According to their latest notification of seized goods, updated Monday, [DEA] agents have seized well over $38 million dollars’ worth of cash and goods from people in the first few months of this year…In fiscal year 2014, Justice Department agencies made a total of $3.9 billion in civil asset seizures, versus only $679 million in criminal asset seizures. In most years since 2008, civil asset forfeitures have accounted for the lion’s share of total seizures.
The entire Post article can be found here.