Report: Civil Forfeiture Policy Unjustly Deprives People of Property

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An updated Competitive Enterprise Institute report calls attention to five myths used to justify the unjust law enforcement practice known as civil asset forfeiture.

“Every year, federal, state, and local government agents take and keep billions of dollars of personal property through civil forfeiture, typically with no hard evidence of wrongdoing,” said Dan Greenberg, CEI General Counsel and author of the report Five Myths of Civil Forfeiture. “State bean counters and law enforcement want to preserve civil forfeiture because it directly benefits state coffers and police department budgets,” Greenberg explained. “But the public should not be fooled by the myths perpetuated to defeat reform.”

In the report, Greenberg gathers updated data to set the record straight on five myths peddled by forfeiture beneficiaries. Contrary to myth:

  1. Cash seizures typically do not consist of hundreds of thousands of dollars – more like several hundred dollars to several thousand dollars.
  2. When property is seized, the owner typically does not have access to the courts to recover it. It’s not worthwhile to pay thousands to a lawyer to gain back several hundred dollars.
  3. As seizure and forfeiture are practiced today, they cannot be squared with the due process of law;
  4. Seizure and forfeiture regularly occur without any evidence of wrongdoing presented in court;
  5. The injustices caused by civil forfeiture have not been fixed, as some reformers hoped, when states require a conviction in criminal court as a prerequisite to forfeiture litigation in civil court. Why? Because there is often no connection between the crime and the property owner.

The report urges legislators to make specific reforms, like establishing a criminal forfeiture system, requiring that forfeited assets go to a state’s general fund rather than supplement the budgets of police agencies and prosecutors’ offices, and requiring greater transparency in seizure and forfeiture processes so that citizens and policymakers can know the scope of the problem.