Two days ago, I learned a very disturbing fact: using a process called civil forfeiture, law enforcement officials and state/federal agencies can seize a person’s home, car, cash, or any other property at will, without a warrant and without charging anyone with a crime.
The Fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution states,
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.
The Fifth Amendment states,
No person shall be… deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.
The Fourth and Fifth Amendments are clearly being violated by this practice. There is no due process. Seizures under civil forfeiture do not involve warrants because they are not considered criminal matters, even though the property is accused of being involved in a crime.
Yes, you read that right. The property itself, not the owner, is accused. This leads to ridiculous lawsuits such as “State of Texas v. One 2004 Chevrolet Silverado” and “United States v. 434 Main Street, Tewksbury, Mass. (The Motel Caswell).”
In addition to the inanity of making an accusation against an object, the rules for conviction and acquittal are changed because it is a civil matter. Only a preponderance of evidence, not evidence beyond a reasonable doubt, is required for seizure and conviction. The law enforcement entity does not have to prove the object guilty; instead, the property owner has to prove its innocence.
Is this the United States, or did I wander off into some authoritarian police state? (pun intended)
When I first learned about this I was furious. Actually, I still am furious. Oddly enough, I wasn’t surprised though. After 9/11, I became aware of provisions in the Patriot Act that gave the federal government the power to snoop into the affairs of anyone who was “suspected of terrorist leanings” without first getting a warrant. At the time, I thought it likely that this kind of civil rights violation (among others) had been going on for some time.Still, this made me very uneasy because, although I want to see terrorists punished, I don’t think the rights of law-abiding citizens should be ignored.
According to The Economist magazine, civil forfeiture has existed for a long time, but it became more frequent in the United States after the drug laws that were passed in 1984 gave police the right to keep and use any profits. Laws like that are very dangerous. They are a great temptation to every human being, and I’m surprised that it was even passed. I would like to find out the reasoning behind it.
Many police departments rely on forfeiture funds to fill in the holes in their budgets. In Arizona and Texas, these funds can even be used to pay salaries directly. They may be used in this way indirectly in other states — for example, the forfeiture money might be used to maintain and repair police vehicles, freeing up money in the budget for salaries.
At this point, I don’t like this practice, but I’m not sure what to do about it, other than tell other people as I am doing here.
If you’d like to learn more, here are some links:
John Oliver from HBO — he makes some jokes but is still dead serious
Rand Paul and S. 2644 — it did not pass
Taken — a truly shameful story about civil forfeiture in Texas, Pennsylvania, and other places