Among the several rights enshrined within the Fifth Amendment is the right not to be subject for the same offense twice, the right not to be a witness against yourself and the right not to have your property taken away from you without due process. Unfortunately, the last of these rights is infringed every day in the United States in a manner known as civil asset forfeiture. This procedure must be abolished.
Civil asset forfeiture is a process whereby law enforcement agencies can legally take an individual’s assets if they reasonably suspect it was used for criminal activity. The burden of proof is then placed on the defendant to prove in a court of law that his property was not used for the furtherance of a crime.
If the defendant loses, their property belongs to the law enforcement agency that took it. In fact, the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 established the Assets Forfeiture Fund at the Department of Justice for asset proceeds and for the Equitable Sharing Program.
“[Once assets are forfeited to the federal government] the proceeds are deposited in an appropriate forfeiture fund and state and local agencies receive a percentage of the total,” according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.
Although this program from the War on Drugs heyday of the Reagan administration may seem like a great tool for law enforcement officials to fight crime, government statistics indicate that the positive impact is inconclusive.
A 2017 report from the Office of the Inspector General states that “[The DOJ does] not collect data to measure, among other factors, how often seizures and forfeitures advance or relate to criminal investigations.”
In addition to the lack of data indicating if civil asset forfeiture is related to criminal investigations, there is considerable evidence to show that there are almost no due process protections when it comes to forfeiture. Although defendants are guaranteed a hearing, it is extremely unfair to the rights of the accused.
Unlike in criminal court, when the defendant is sentenced to prison based on a beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard in civil forfeiture cases, the burden is on the defendant to prove that their property was not used for criminal purposes. The government has the power to get away with this tyrannical power because the accused party is property, not a person. Thus, the property itself is on trial and the owner must prove that it was not involved in criminal activity.
Eighty eight percent of civil asset forfeiture cases take place administratively, according to the Institute of Justice’s report “Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture.”
“[Administrative forfeitures mean that] when a property owner fails to challenge a seizure in court for any reason, including the inability to afford a lawyer or a missed deadline to file a claim,” the report said.
There is no doubt that civil asset forfeiture is not compatible with American values of innocence until proven guilty, due process of law, impartial justice and liberty. It is for these reasons that it should be abolished.