The concept of civil asset forfeiture, where law enforcement can confiscate peoples’ assets, isn’t new. It’s been around since the 1980s and was based on the drug war premise of taking the property of drug dealers to make the illegal trade unprofitable.
It didn’t work, as anyone remotely familiar with the current drug issues in this country can attest. Yet civil asset forfeiture is still around—and its abuse is a serious problem. After all, authorities don’t even need to suspect you of a crime in order to take your life savings.
Fox News reports on one disturbing recent example:
Linda Martin thought she was being responsible by putting her nest egg in a safe deposit box where she wouldn’t be tempted to touch it.
She never imagined the FBI would seize her life savings.
“They didn’t tell us why they took our money. They haven’t told us anything as far as what we did wrong,” Martin, 58, told Fox News. “We haven’t done anything wrong. We work and we saved our money because we were trying to save and buy a house.”
Two years later, Martin still doesn’t know why her money was taken or if she’ll ever get it back.
“The FBI, they feel like they can get away with anything,” she said. “I just feel like it’s unfair.”
On March 22, 2021, the FBI seized Martin’s and 1,400 other customers’ safe deposit boxes from U.S. Private Vaults, a Beverly Hills–based company. The FBI took the $40,200 Linda was saving for a down payment on a home in addition to another $86 million in cash and tens of millions more in gold, silver, jewelry and other valuables from other safe deposit box renters.
The problem is that Martin isn’t accused of committing any crime. She doesn’t even appear to be suspected of a crime. She merely used a safe deposit box company that was also being used criminally. As such, her $40,000 is now in police hands.
Yet we should also remember that Martin’s experiences aren’t typical. But not in a way that looks good for law enforcement. The Institute for Justice notes that the typical amount taken in a civil asset forfeiture case is less than $1,300. That kind of amount is particularly problematic because getting it back would often cost citizens more in legal fees than the actual amount they would recover.
Despite that relatively small sum, though, there have been several years where law enforcement has taken more from people in monetary value than burglars. Those years when the criminals took more? It’s not like the police were all that far behind, either.
What’s more, there’s no due process involved here. Not really.
When assets are taken, there is a court hearing, but the lawful owner isn’t part of the process. The item is accused of a crime. Since it’s not a person, the item in question isn’t given legal representation. Further, this isn’t an “innocent until proven guilty” kind of thing, either.
In a case like Nelson’s, she has to prove beyond any doubt that the money in question has nothing to do with crime. The problem with $40,000 in cash is that it’s kind of hard not to have questions, and since cash doesn’t have the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard you or I would have in court, it creates difficulties for folks who see their property taken like this.
Then, just to make this a special kind of evil, that money then flows into law enforcement budgets around the nation. The Institute for Justice notes that revenue from forfeiture amounts to $8.8 billion between 2000 and 2019. That creates a perverse incentive to seize people’s property, regardless of whether they’re suspected of actually doing anything illegal or not.
Further, it’s not even particularly popular.
A 2020 survey from YouGov found that once people were familiar with civil asset forfeiture, 56% opposed it to some degree or another. Considering the policies pushed by lawmakers with far less support, one would imagine repealing these laws would be easy.
The problem is that the same survey found that 53% of people had never heard of civil asset forfeiture. It wasn’t until they’d been informed about it through the survey that they developed an opinion, and that was largely negative.
As such, there’s absolutely no pressure on lawmakers to repeal it. Couple that with the concern that doing so might make them appear soft on crime and you have a recipe for continued abuse of law-abiding citizens at the hands of law enforcement.