Let’s Put Civil Forfeiture in the Past

Drew Kaplan ‘20, Associate Opinion Editor

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In the United States, there is a practice known as “civil forfeiture.” Employed by police forces, the practice entails the confiscation of money or objects that the police believe are, or could be used in a crime. However, the owner need not be convicted or even charged with a crime for the money or object to be kept by police. The underlying idea is that the owner is not charged, the stuff is. The object is accused of a crime. And unless the owner can prove the object or money innocent, the authorities may keep it, and use or sell as they see fit.

This is, as far as I can tell, a deeply flawed system; it creates a financial incentive for police to seize the property of the innocent for their own gain under the guise of “fighting crime.” In a form of legalized theft, when civil forfeiture is employed, an officer may confiscate the contents of your wallet because it is possible for you to use the contents of the wallet for illegal purposes. After that, even if that is your first, last and only encounter with any officer, the money is now the property of the police department. This, though, isn’t limited to physically small things. In 2014, a 22-year-old Philadelphia man was charged with selling heroin, $40 worth. He lived in his parents’ basement at the time. Although he was not arrested in the home, Philadelphia police seized the home and evicted the entire family. The home was seized under civil forfeiture, as the police claimed that the man was selling heroin from the home. In any sane society, although the arrest would have happened, the home would not have been taken by the police. Was the home, an inanimate object, itself selling drugs? Was the home owned or purchased with drug money? Were the owners selling drugs? No, no, no. There was nothing illegal about the home, the only thing remotely illegal about it was that someone who lived there sold drugs away from it, and yet the home was seized.

The idea of civil forfeiture is something that violates due process, something enshrined in the 5th amendment. Over the last ten years, the DEA alone has seized $3.2 billion in cash alone. That figure does not include the value of property and object seized, just $3.2 billion worth of Franklins, Jacksons and Washingtons. The best part of this figure is that the $3.2 billion came only from people who were never charged with a crime. There is a separate figure for people who were charged. $3.2 billion seized from people who not only did nothing wrong but were never accused of doing something wrong.

There is no legal procedure to seize things, the police can simply claim them, requisition them, steal them, the only reason being that they think something suspicious might occur. The only time civil forfeiture appears in court, is when owners attempt to recover their property, where, as stated above, they must prove its innocence.

The property is guilty until proven innocent. Now, some states have taken steps to limit civil forfeiture, but this practice is still widespread. It is an assault on our civil rights, and violates rights guaranteed in the Constitution of the United States. It is time to see civil forfeiture confined to the waste bin of history.

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