- Radley Balko, The Washington Post
Since the 1980s, the Department of Justice has utilized civil asset forfeiture as an effective tool to seize and forfeit billions of dollars-worth of assets allegedly connected to criminal activity as either an instrumentality or fruit of the crime. Since the inception of the asset forfeiture program, the Justice Department has shared much of these funds with state and local law enforcement authorities under its equitable sharing program, and many states have their own civil forfeiture laws and procedures. Critics of the program believe that civil asset forfeiture is fundamentally unfair, claiming, among other things, that it has the potential to warp law enforcement priorities, that the existing procedures are stacked against innocent property owners, and that it is simply wrong to seize someone’s property when that person has not been charged with, much less convicted of, a crime. Several proposals have been introduced in Congress to reform the civil asset forfeiture program, the Justice Department has announced that it is conducting an internal review of this program, and a number of states have recently undertaken a review of their own civil asset forfeiture laws.
Everyone knows that the proceeds and instrumentalities of a crime are confiscable by the state. What they don’t know is that the laws that authorize this type of “civil forfeiture” are subject to abuse. Some allege that state and federal law enforcement authorities use civil forfeiture as a revenue-generation tool, creating perverse incentives. This system sometimes falls on innocent owners, many of whom don’t have the legal skills or money to fight back. Our experts will discuss whether this area of our legal system is in need of reform.