What is Civil Asset Forfeiture?
Civil Asset Forfeiture in the United States, sometimes called civil judicial forfeiture, is a legal process in which law enforcement officers take assets from persons suspected of involvement with crime or illegal activity without necessarily charging the owners with wrongdoing.
While civil procedure generally involves a dispute between two private citizens, civil forfeiture involves a dispute between law enforcement and property, such as money or valuable items such as a car. The item should be suspected of being involved in a crime.
Wikipedia states that to get back the seized property, “owners must prove it was not involved in criminal activity.”
This is an odd twist: usually, the government must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, but in this case, the owner of the item must prove his or her innocence.
Last Thursday, SB 443, California’s attempt to end civil-asset forfeiture and “equitable sharing” abuse, failed passage in the State Assembly, 24 to 44, according to the National Review.
What is equitable sharing?
The National Review writes that “Forfeiture practices are further complicated with the existence of equitable-sharing agreements. Therein, state and local agencies partner with federal law enforcement, seize property, and proceed with the forfeiture motion through the jurisdiction with the least restrictive process, oftentimes the federal courts. The agencies then share the proceeds. This allows law enforcement to wholly sidestep any legal protections guaranteed by the state.”
More on Civil Asset Forfeiture by Wikipedia:
“Proponents see civil forfeiture as a powerful tool to thwart criminal organizations involved in the illegal drug trade, with $12 billion annual profits, since it allows authorities to seize cash and other assets resulting from narcotics trafficking. Proponents argue that it is an efficient method since it allows law enforcement agencies to use these seized proceeds to further battle illegal activity, that is, directly converting bad things to good purposes by harming criminals economically while helping law enforcement financially. Critics argue that innocent owners become entangled in the process such that their right to property is violated, with few legal protections and due process rules to protect them in situations where they are presumed guilty instead of being presumed innocent.”
The ACLU writes:
“Civil forfeiture allows police to seize — and then keep or sell — any property they allege is involved in a crime. Owners need not ever be arrested or convicted of a crime for their cash, cars, or even real estate to be taken away permanently by the government.”
Why would we allow civil asset forfeiture?
The Heritage Foundation writes that Civil Asset Forfeiture is intended to give law enforcement a tool they can use to go after organized crime – mafia, etc. – including drug dealers and their organizations.
The Heritage Foundation continues: “Unfortunately, civil asset forfeiture is also used by law enforcement as a way to generate revenue, and many of its targets are innocent members of the public.”
In regards to the California Senate Bill 443, the bill “would not affect law enforcement’s power to seize property, based on probable cause. Police would still be able to hold seized property in evidence rooms and impound lots until forfeiture proceedings are resolved.”
A Sacramento Bee letter to the editor writes:
“Instead, SB 443 would only allow seized property to be forfeited (to the government) once its owner has been convicted of any crime. California already requires this for most seizures. Several states, including Montana, Nevada and New Mexico, recently enacted this vital protection of due process.
“Moreover, whenever California agencies collaborate with the federal government, SB 443 would first require the federal government to obtain a criminal conviction before proceeding with forfeiture. One investigation found the federal government, in cooperation with California agencies, took nearly $300 million in cash from people never charged with a crime.”