Prosecutors and Police Departments Are Addicted to Civil Forfeiture Laws. Bob Donley Explains

LBN’s Bob Donley reports that “policing for profit” is starting to look the drug trade they were created to stop. [An earlier LBN report provides additional information about civil forfeitures.] And just like drugs, “the policies themselves are becoming addictive.”

The civil forfeiture laws in their present form began about thirty years ago. Their laudable purpose was to cripple large-scale criminal enterprises. The idea behind the laws was to enable police departments and prosecuting attorneys to get their hands on property used in drug trafficking. The scope included cash, cars, houses—anything that criminals used in their illegal ventures.

What sets these forfeitures apart is that they are civil, not criminal. The property is taken in a civil proceeding, without regard to whether anyone is ever charged with a crime. The Department of Justice alone took in $2.50 billion in 2010.

All of this property seizure has not gone unnoticed. The Institute for Justice, a nonprofit organization with conservative support, says that “This has shaken the nation’s conscience.” The ACLU, a traditionally liberal organization, has also weighed in, likening civil forfeiture to an air campaign in a war. “Both sides now seeing this as a genie that’s hard to put back into that bottle.”

Civil forfeiture became a bigger issue in recent years when tax revenues dropped and budgets were tight for government departments. In 2001, only a little over $400 million was seized nationwide through civil forfeitures. By 2012, the amount seized had increased to $4.5 billion. Prosecutors have been able to balance their budgets with seized assets.

Because these forfeiture proceedings are civil in nature, property owners have no right to a court-appointed lawyer. And the money that might be used to hire a lawyer is the very money that was seized. There are a few rumblings that it is time to rewrite these laws. However, for now, the easy money available from civil forfeitures is an addiction that can’t seem to be shaken.

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