You only need to turn on the nightly news to see how badly our country needs to reform its justice system. The heartbreaking stories that come out of our cities every day are a raw reminder of how far we have to go.
America represents 5% of the world’s population, but 25% of the world’s prison population. And when 1 in 3 Americans has a criminal record, something has gone terribly wrong.
We’re working to reform our justice system with leaders and activists on both sides of the aisle. As we fight for progress, we’ve already seen clear movement in some areas.
Civil asset forfeiture is one of them.
Imagine if the police could take your property — including your cash, your car, and even your home — without charging you with any wrongdoing.
Imagine if all that authorities needed to seize your assets was a vague “suspicion” of illegal activity, rather than any sort of concrete proof.
Imagine if our government made billions of dollars off of these seizures every year.
Sounds like something out of a totalitarian regime, doesn’t it?
Unfortunately, thanks to an obscure, controversial legal process called “civil asset forfeiture,” this is happening right here in the United States.
Civil asset forfeiture has been part of the American justice system for generations, a tool allowing law enforcement to stem criminal activity by seizing assets associated with it. The practice began growing significantly in the 1980s as part of the war on drugs, empowering law enforcement to stifle the drug trade by seizing the profits of criminal activity.
When used responsibly, civil asset forfeiture can help blunt criminal activity, fight crime and increase public safety. But many of the laws that govern the practice create no protections for innocent citizens who have been wrongly targeted. Instead, they leave decisions about the fate of one’s property to the discretion of individual law enforcement officers who can use what they seize to fund their operations. That practice creates a perverse incentive for law enforcement officers, and it leaves innocent citizens fighting to get their property back.
Innocent citizens like Mandrel Stuart.
In Virginia, Stuart was pulled over for driving with tinted windows. But instead of simply issuing him a ticket, the police took $17,550 in cash that Stuart had with him, which he had planned to use for purchasing supplies and equipment for his restaurant, Smoking Roosters.
Stuart had to hire an attorney to help get his money back, but he faced an uphill battle.
The process for retrieving seized property is lengthy, expensive and complex. It can sometimes take a year of court proceedings, and there’s no guarantee that seized property will be returned in the end.
Unable to pay his bills and rent, Stuart lost his restaurant, closing the doors to Smoking Roosters just months after his money was seized.
Stuart’s story is just one of many innocent citizens who have been wronged by a justice system in need of reform. One much-needed reform? Removing some of the twisted incentives for law enforcement to seize property to begin with.
Civil asset forfeiture has become such a moneymaker for law enforcement that it’s led to widespread abuse.
In more than 40 states, the proceeds of seized property — including cash, cars, homes — go directly to law enforcement, in some cases to fund under-resourced budgets or even staff salaries.
This creates a perverse incentive for law enforcement to beef up their budgets by simply seizing property they “suspect” may have been involved in criminal activity.
Sadly, abuse of the practice leaves many innocent victims scrambling, unable secure the resources to fight back in court and get their money back.
Civil asset forfeiture flips the basic tenants of our justice system on its head.
The American legal system is based on the presumption of innocence. “Innocent until proven guilty” represents one of the pillars of our justice system, but in the case of civil asset forfeiture, someone’s property is charged as guilty — and its owner is left to prove its innocence.
This was the case in Virginia with Army Sgt. Jeff Cortazzo.
He had saved $66,000 for his daughters’ college educations, before law enforcement seized the hard-saved money.
To “prove” that his money was not involved in any illicit illegal activity, Jeff had to hire an attorney, costing him $21,000 in the end. His eldest of three daughters had to delay attending college by a year.
Stories like these are far too common — and they undermine our very notion of due process and equal justice under the law.
The government is confiscating more and more assets every year.
From 2013 to 2014, the amount of money deposited into the Department of Justice’s Assets Forfeiture Fund by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies increased by 65%, from $2 billion to $4.5 billion. Law enforcement has become increasingly dependent on civil asset forfeiture for revenue, and in some counties, nearly forty percent of police budgets comes directly from the practice.
80 percent of the property and money seized by the government through civil asset forfeiture is never associated with a criminal charge, and victims face lengthy, expensive legal battles to regain their assets.
Those court cases — with charges filed against the property instead of the person — have outrageous names:
- New Jersey v. One 1990 Ford Thunderbird
- United States v. $8,850 of United States Currency
- Texas v. One Gold Crucifix
With the practice continuing to grow, and more stories like Stuart’s and Cortazzo’s coming to the fore, people are starting to take notice.
The movement to reform civil asset forfeiture laws is beginning to generate serious momentum. Several states have recently introduced reforms aimed at reestablishing the burden of proof and requiring law enforcement to prove a substantial connection between the property confiscated and the offense to which it relates.
In Montana, the state legislature recently passed a bill that would require a criminal conviction before forfeiture of property. In New Mexico, Gov. Susana Martinez signed a bill that requires all proceeds from asset forfeitures to be put into the state’s general fund rather than going directly into law enforcement coffers, reducing the incentive to seize cash to pad budgets.
At the federal level, there is bipartisan support for reforming civil asset forfeiture laws. Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, held a hearing in March examining abuses of the practice and has indicated that he’s interested in moving legislation in the near-term to ensure that the property and due process rights of innocent citizens are preserved.
Meanwhile, advocacy initiatives like the Coalition for Public Safety are uniting groups on the right and the left to pressure the government to end this practice on the federal level. Until then, civil asset forfeiture will remain a shameful stain on our country’s moral legacy, and further erode Americans’ trust in law enforcement.
As we head into yet another election season, it’s time to recognize the seriousness of this problem and see that our leaders make good on pledges to reform our criminal justice system. Starting with addressing the abuses in civil asset forfeiture.
Sekemia Mwonyonyi is the Deputy Director of The Coalition for Public Safety, a bipartisan effort bringing together the nation’s most prominent conservative and progressive organizations to make our criminal justice system smarter, fairer and more cost effective.