Commentary by James Shott
Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act became law in 2000. Asset forfeiture
is a tool that gives law enforcement the power to seize property and
cash if they suspect it is connected to a crime, and is hailed by law
enforcement groups as a vital tool for combating drug trafficking and
The Institute for Justice reports that the
Justice Department’s program furnished state and local law enforcement
agencies some $4.7 billion in forfeiture proceeds from 2000 to 2013.
What better way to help fund law enforcement than through the
confiscation of property from criminals?
But the DOJ now plans
to halt the program. Naturally, law enforcement wants this program to
continue, and the possibility of the program being halted has raised
concerns and prompted letters to President Barack Obama and Attorney
General Loretta Lynch.
The National Sheriff’s Association, to
cite just one of the law enforcement groups expressing concern, said the
Justice Department’s decision will hinder law enforcement agencies’
ability to do their jobs. “While Congress and the president vacation in
peace and tranquility, law enforcement knows all too well that the
criminals, terrorists, and criminal aliens do not take a holiday,” the
sheriff’s organization noted. “Those seeking to do us harm can rest
easier knowing one less tool can be used against them.”
typical of governments at all levels, which are operated by humans and
not angels, this program has been abused to illegally confiscate the
private, legally possessed property of innocent Americans. Essentially,
the message government sends out far too frequently is, “Any useful
program that governments have at their disposal will eventually be
misused, to the detriment of the people for whose benefit it was
If you need a recent example of government power
misused by government employees, remember Lois Lerner and the IRS
targeting and harassing certain conservative organizations seeking
non-profit status. Other examples of misbehavior are not hard to find.
asset forfeiture program also is abused. From the ACLU Website: “Police
abuse of civil asset forfeiture laws has shaken our nation’s
conscience. 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.
was originally presented as a way to cripple large-scale criminal
enterprises by diverting their resources. But today, aided by deeply
flawed federal and state laws, many police departments use forfeiture to
benefit their bottom lines, making seizures motivated by profit rather
than crime-fighting. For people whose property has been seized through
civil asset forfeiture, legally regaining such property is notoriously
difficult and expensive, with costs sometimes exceeding the value of the
property. With the total value of property seized increasing every
year, calls for reform are growing louder, and [the ACLU and others are]
at the forefront of organizations seeking to rein in the practice.”
and Jennifer Perry exemplify people who were victimized by this law and
law enforcement officers willing to capitalize on it.
25, 2012, the couple was stopped for speeding in Henry County, Mass.
Police searched the couple’s vehicle and found a suitcase containing
$107,520 in cash. Suspicious? Yes, but not a crime or necessarily
evidence of a crime. And although no drugs or any other evidence of a
crime were found, the police said they suspected the Perrys of criminal
activity, and seized the cash and their vehicle.
hours of questioning the Perrys insisted they had done nothing wrong and
that the money was theirs legally, from various legal sources, and had
evidence confirming that for some of the funds. Lacking any real
evidence, the police had to release the couple. But they kept the money
and the vehicle, even though no charges were filed, no trial was held,
and no guilt was proved. Three years later, the Perrys are still
fighting to get their property back.
If this legalized theft
from innocent citizens isn’t bad enough, now a federal judge has
demanded that the Perrys prove how they got the money, this after they
had already given explanations to the police, who did not disprove those
explanations. Question: If there was no evidence of a crime, and no
charges filed, why should these citizens be compelled to prove where
they got their own money?
A fundamental American legal principle
is the presumption of innocence, that Americans are innocent until
“proven” guilty, and that the onus is on the judicial system to prove
guilt, not on citizens to prove they aren’t guilty.
23, the Justice Department announced it will discontinue the asset
forfeiture program, but the discontinuation is temporary.
tyrannical treatment of the Perrys by Henry County, MA police and a
federal judge epitomizes what “un-American” means. Before it can be
reinstated, asset forfeiture laws must be amended to protect Americans
from rogue actors in law enforcement who seek improved work conditions
at the expense of law-abiding citizens. Stiff criminal penalties for
abuse are essential. These people soil the reputations of the 99 percent
who honorably serve the people.
Cross-posted from Observations