A new national study shows that state and federal laws regarding the forfeiture of property are leading to an unprecedented increase in the amount of property seizures across the United States. The study represents the most comprehensive examination of civil forfeiture laws that has ever been conducted.
According to the study, federal laws are particularly bad. They offer poor property protections and few rights regarding due process. Additionally, federal law provides law enforcement officers a strong financial incentive to seize the property of individuals. As a result, law enforcement often tries to take property away from people, regardless of their guilt or innocence.
State laws are also considerably poor when it comes to property protections. Like the federal laws, state laws often fail to respect due process and basic property rights. However, most state laws weren’t as bad as federal policies, as only two states received a lower rating in property rights than the federal government.
One of the co-authors of the study Dick M. Carpenter II said, “Research has shown that the financial incentives baked into civil forfeiture laws influence law enforcement behavior. When laws make taking property relatively easy and lucrative for law enforcement, it should be no surprise to see agencies take advantage.”
Current civil forfeiture laws allow police and prosecutors to seize cash, cars, homes and other forms of property if they believe that it might be associated with criminal activity. Authorities can take this property without filing any charges or making any convictions. In order to get this property back, the owners must go through a convoluted legal process. Making matters more troubling is that authorities often take a cut of the seizures, giving them incentive to take property away.
The revenue from forfeitures is massive, and it has been growing at an extremely alarming rate. In 2001, the money made from the seizing of property was less than $500 million. Last year, it was more than $5 billion.
Despite this alarming trend, not much is being done about the issue. Some states have taken on reforms to curb the property seizure rates, but Congress has done virtually nothing. At the present time, very little evidence is needed for a legal seizure of property to take place. Although some members of Congress have brought up the issue, efforts to gain momentum in the revision movement have largely failed.
While the United States Justice and Treasury Departments have announced policy changes that are designed to curb the practice, they are unlikely to reverse the trend. More work needs to be done.
Co-author of the study Lisa Knepper said, “As long as state and federal laws fail to protect property owners and give law enforcement a financial incentive to take property, civil forfeiture will continue to grow. The best solution would be to simply abolish civil forfeiture. No one should lose their property without being convicted of a crime, and law enforcement should not profit from taking people’s property.”
Indeed, requiring that people be first convicted of a crime before they can have their property taken would be an excellent starting point. For now, the study gives plenty of reasons to show that we cannot trust the government when it comes to respecting our personal property.