The Case for Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform
“I pledge to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America and the Constitution of the State and to enforce the laws of the State and the United States. I will never abuse the authority vested in me, and will honor and uphold the constitutional rights to liberty, equality, and justice afforded to all persons. So, help me God!”
Law enforcement officers across the United States take this oath, or something similar when they pin on the badge. But we must truly understand the meaning of the oath. The first statement is the greatest statement in any oath of office. “I pledge to uphold the Constitution of the United States of America”.
Civil Asset Forfeiture first came into play in the 1980’s, during the height of the crack cocaine epidemic. Asset forfeiture of suspects that were linked to criminal activity could be seized. This was viewed as a significant part of fighting the crack cocaine wars. But in our successes, we got greedy and state and local legislatures saw an opportunity to supplant law enforcement budgets with these seized assets. Over the years the burden of proof for these seizures has been lowered significantly to a point where even criminal charges are no longer needed.
Allowing law enforcement to seize property without criminal convictions have caused a constitutional crisis in America and is a strain on the relationship between law enforcement agencies and the communities they protect. How can we take an oath of office to protect the Constitution of the United States and then routinely violate a persons’ Fifth Amendment right to due process? Relying solely on the good discretion of any government agent is always poor policy, and civil asset forfeiture is a good example of why. Civil asset forfeiture reforms are needed quickly with respect to civil asset forfeiture, but until that time comes, reliance on the good discretion of our police officers is all we have, and the current legality of the procedure does not relieve our police officers from the prudent exercise of this discretion. Legislative reforms should raise the burden of proof to a “clear and convincing” standard, and should require a conviction before any assets can be seized.
It’s time to start obeying that oath of office pledged!