Civil asset forfeiture laws allow the authorities to take your stuff without ever proving you did something wrong. They run counter to the basic assumptions and processes of our criminal justice system that are meant to protect the innocent.
Fortunately, progress in reforming these laws is being made. Three states have already decided to ban the practice entirely including North Carolina, New Mexico, and Nebraska. Since New Mexico’s ban, experience has shown that crime did not increase as detractors had predicted.
Overall, 35 states have passed at least some type of reform, including Alabama and Arkansas in 2019. 15 states currently have passed laws that require a criminal conviction as the standard in order to allow civil asset forfeiture. Also, 25 states have passed laws raising the standard for record keeping and reporting during civil asset forfeiture.
While there’s still much do be done in the states, opportunity is knocking again with most states engaged in their 2021 legislative sessions. States like Arizona, where Democrats bizarrely killed reform last session, have the chance to get it done this year.
Reform on this issue should continue to gain urgency following the Supreme Court’s decision in Timbs v. Indiana. The court ruled that the state wrongfully forfeited a man’s SUV on the theory that it was used to move drugs. The court overturned a state court ruling, asserting it violated the U.S. Constitution’s ban on excessive fines.
Although the Timbs decision was a major blow to law enforcement overreach, work still needs to be done to bring civil asset forfeiture into check on a federal level. Representative Tim Walberg from Michigan has a bill in Congress that would directly address this issue. The Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration act (FAIR act) would provide further protection to individuals who are having their assets seized by the police.
The point of the bill is not to eliminate or augment the government’s ability to seize property, but merely to ensure adequate legal protection and fairness for the individuals subject to such practice.
Former Representative Justin Amash had proposed a bill to end civil asset forfeiture entirely.
Some police departments have been abusing asset forfeiture for years, such as the case of Gerardo Serrano who had his pickup truck taken from him by police and was held for 2 years after being accused of arms smuggling for accidently leaving a hand gun magazine in his center console while attempting to cross the border to see his family.
As a matter of fact, in 2014 in total dollar value, law enforcement agencies used civil asset forfeiture to seize more from people than the total amount of the value of property stolen during burglaries. In overall numbers, the authorities were taking more stuff than bad guys at that particular moment.
Politicians who believe in property rights, due process, and individual liberty should lead on reform, just as much as those who object to the authorities taking stuff from people who are more likely to be from low-income communities.