Congress defunds civil asset forfeiture program

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Funds yanked: Congress puts the brakes on civil asset forfeiture
By Terri Hall
February 1, 2016

Many conservatives are upset with the omnibus spending bill Congress passed at the end of the year, but one provision they should praise is congress rescinding funding for the Justice Department’s civil asset forfeiture program. Most Americans have no idea what civil asset forfeiture is until law enforcement seizes your vehicle and everything in it during a routine traffic stop even though you have committed no crime.

The program was initially launched to help local law enforcement agencies fight drug trafficking and other organized crime by seizing assets they suspect may be involved in those crimes. But now it’s morphed into a system where you don’t even have to be charged with a crime to have your property seized by police, and few innocent parties ever get their money or property back.

The modern use of civil asset forfeiture is rife with abuse and fraught with violations of citizens’ fourth amendment constitutional rights. Local law enforcement agencies now seek out high value assets to seize and use the proceeds from the sale of those assets to fund new vehicles for police departments or to fund other day-to-day operations of local law enforcement rather than seek to prosecute actual criminals and take down organized crime rings.

Many times it’s a driver who may be stopped and is found to have lots of cash on hand, so law enforcement jumps to the conclusion that the driver is involved in some sort of a drug-related crime and police immediately seize the cash, the vehicle, and all the property in the vehicle (and sometimes even the person’s home and other property) even though there’s no evidence of any crime nor do they charge the person for a crime.

It’s a very cumbersome, expensive, and lengthy process for an innocent party to get their seized property back, causing many to cut their losses and abandon their property altogether. Law enforcement is also known to threaten to charge innocent people with crimes if they seek to get their assets back, again causing many innocent parties to relinquish their property rather than fight an uphill, seemingly unwinnable battle.

The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that an ‘innocent owner’ defense is not constitutionally required. In states where such a defense is permissible, the innocent party is usually responsible for proving their innocence. The presumption of innocence seems nowhere to be found when it comes to civil asset forfeiture, leaving innocent parties the difficult task of fighting for their own constitutional rights against well-funded, well-organized government agencies.

The cites a Tennessee motorist that got stopped and the deputy found him in possession of $18,480 in cash. No drugs were found and the motorist said the cash was for a music deal, yet a sheriff’s deputy still confiscated the cash despite there being no evidence of any crime. The motorist was never charged with any crime. It took him almost two years in federal court to finally get his money back.

The federal government’s involvement stems from the ‘equitable sharing’ program through the Justice Department that allows local law enforcement to do an end run around state laws curbing civil asset forfeiture by invoking the federal forfeiture statute. The feds then split the proceeds with the locals skimming 20% for themselves, leaving local law enforcement with 80% of the booty to spend however they wish.

In response to the growing concern over how civil asset forfeiture collides with property rights, the Institute for Policy Research is hosting a summit on civil asset forfeiture on February 9 in Irving, Texas. The summit will feature grassroots and tea party favorites like State Senator Konni Burton, State Senator Don Huffines, and State Representative Matt Schaefer along with speakers from the both the left and the right – the ACLU and Freedom Works.

Other conservative think tanks, like Heritage Foundation, are also stepping up their efforts to educate the public to the abuses of civil asset forfeiture and demand lawmakers fight to protect Americans’ fundamental rights from wrongful forfeiture. The recent congressional action to defund the federal program only lasts through 2016, so expect both sides to be ready for battle in 2017.