Pirates in America
How the government can take the property of innocent people and why our laws permit it
Civil forfeiture is a legal form of piracy, where the state and federal policing agencies can take your money and property without any charges being filed or arrests being made. It is a remnant of the colonial taxation and seizure powers of the Crown, receiving unprecedented power during the War on Drugs. The net income for state and federal policing agencies is measured in billions, all of which stems from seizing assets from Americans.
A weapon intended against criminal enterprises, civil forfeiture has left a trail of innocent victims since inception. In particular, the impact is most felt by minorities and the economically disadvantaged as they are most likely to reside in areas with a higher number of police searches and are the least likely to have the economic means to fight unjust seizures.
Curtailing civil forfeiture must be one of the central demands in the advocacy for policy reform. Like the issuance of no-knock warrants, civil forfeiture affords police agencies the ability to circumvent the bill of rights and exercise authoritarian levels of control over citizens. While some states have taken measures to pass laws that limit civil forfeiture, the majority of the country still finds itself at the mercy of this doctrine.
Civil forfeiture subverts due process
Civil forfeiture takes the expectation of due process and turns it on its head. It is a practice in which state and federal law enforcement officers can seize the assets from a person that is suspected of participating in criminal enterprises or if that person’s property is believed to have been used in criminal activity. The assets can be seized without the individual being charged and to retrieve the property, the owner would have to appeal the seizure and prove that the property was not involved in criminal activity.
Petitioning for the return of seized assets is a process that can take thousands of dollars and years to obtain a decision. During that time, the petitioner is fighting the government, who has a pecuniary interest in keeping a multi-billion dollar source of funds flowing into the state.