Criminal Justice

Institute for Justice Report Highlights Civil Asset Forfeiture Abuses

According to a recently released report by the Institute for Justice, law enforcement agencies across the country have seized $29 billion in assets via civil forfeiture in the past 14 years. Civil asset forfeiture occurs when police officers suspect a person is guilty of a crime and consequently seizes the suspect’s property in connection with the suspected crime. A criminal conviction is not required for law enforcement to seize the property.

Originally, civil asset forfeitures were used to dismantle significant criminal enterprises by taking away their resources; however, this system has developed many flaws over the years. Cash-strapped law enforcement agencies now use the method more to raise revenue than to fight crime, disproportionately hurting the poorest and most vulnerable citizens. In most cases, a suspect must go through a very complicated process to retrieve their possessions. Often times the suspect is required to pay a fine to have their property returned and ends up paying more in fines than what their belongings are worth.

In their comprehensive report on civil asset forfeiture in the states, the Institute of Justice rated each state’s protections from civil forfeiture. New Mexico is the only state to receive a letter grade “A” after enacting a law that requires a criminal conviction before the police could seize property. Indiana, Maine, Maryland, Missouri and Wisconsin all received “B” ratings. 30 states received “D” grades, with Massachusetts and North Dakota receiving the only “F” rating.

To help more states provide more stringent property rights protections like those in New Mexico, the American Legislative Exchange Council has drafted model policies to address rampant civil asset forfeiture abuse. The Reporting of Seizure and Forfeiture Act requires law enforcement to create reports about each seizure and forfeiture completed by the agency. The report should include information such as the type of property seized, the type of crime and the outcome of the related criminal action. The Asset Forfeiture Process and Private Property Protection Act simplifies the process of civil forfeiture, regulates forfeitures for all crimes and fixes counterproductive enticements in the law that alter policing priorities. Furthermore, it makes sure that those convicted of a crime do not keep their possessions that were related to the crime committed.

Property rights protections from government abuse is one of the most fundamental rights enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. In order to maintain the rule of law and restore law enforcement agencies to their rightful duties to protect and serve their communities, it is imperative that states curb abusive civil asset forfeiture practices.

In Depth: Criminal Justice

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