Civil asset forfeiture is a practice abused by the police and government officials as a popular means of raising revenue and has become the subject of widespread criticism. Courts are now opening their doors to new legal arguments when police or the government seize property that is valued well out of proportion to the crimes involved.
Asset-forfeiture practices have roots in the war on drugs, but the practice dates back to the 17th century maritime laws where ships would be seized for illegally transporting goods. This process was again heavily used against bootleggers during Prohibition, and during the Reagan era, it became profoundly empowered by local and federal enforcement agencies through the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984. With this Act, law enforcement agencies began taking inventory such as yachts and exotic cars from drug kingpins and keeping it for their personal use.
Civil Asset Forfeiture Case Captures National Attention
A recent case in Indiana involved the State seizing Tyson Timbs Land Rover under the law, which allows for seizing vehicles used to transport illegal drugs. Mr. Timbs had purchased the Land Rover after his father passed away from life insurance money left to him in the amount of $73,000. He bought the Rover for $42,000 and spent the remaining funds on drugs.
Mr. Timb’s drug habit started with opioid addiction, but with access to this large amount of money soon progressed to heroin. He used his new Land Rover to obtain the drugs, and at least twice to sell drugs. He soon encountered undercover police officers during his trade.
Upon his arrest, Mr. Timbs pleaded guilty to selling drugs and was sentenced to one year of house arrest, with five years of probation. He also agreed to pay fines and fees totaling approximately $1,200. These punishments did not satisfy the State of Indiana as they wanted more. By using the civil forfeiture law, they also took his Land Rover.
Mr. Timbs has put his life back together after his arrest by attending meetings, receiving counseling, and faithfully attending his probation appointments. He attempted to secure employment, which was incredibly difficult without a vehicle, and with his name now listed as a felon.
He eventually located a position as a machinist more than forty minutes from his residence, so he ended up having to borrow a vehicle from a sick aunt who ended up having to use the city bus system to get back and forth from her dialysis appointments.
Mr. Timbs case is a clear example of how civil forfeiture makes it incredibly difficult for people who have made mistakes to fix those mistakes and re-enter society. Through the help of his attorney, Mr. Timbs won his first legal rounds in an Indiana lawsuit to reclaim his vehicle. Using the United States Eighth Amendment in his defense, it was declared taking the Land Rover from Mr. Timb’s possession was an ‘excessive fine.’
The Eighth Amendment of the United States Constitution prohibits excessive bail and excessive fines being imposed. It also prevents the infliction of cruel and unusual punishments. This Amendment was created to safeguard Americans against extreme punishments through the legal system.
The judge presiding over Mr. Timb’s case discovered the Land Rover was worth more than four times the maximum amount that could have been fined to Mr. Timb. The Land Rover was, in fact, worth thirty times more than the actual fines imposed on him. The Indiana Supreme Court, however, ruled against Mr. Timbs.
In the Indiana Supreme Court’s ruling, it was stated that the Eighth Amendment's prohibition of excessive fines does not apply to those imposed by states. The Supreme Court remains inconsistent about where it stands on excessive fines, and Mr. Timbs would face further court battles to regain his Land Rover.
In November of 2019, The Indiana Supreme Court caused a significant blow against civil forfeiture with a ruling on Mr. Timbs's case. It strengthened protections for property owners under the Eighth Amendment when Mr. Timbs challenged their initial decision on the government forfeiting his Land Rover. The November ruling came weeks after a circuit judge in South Carolina also ruled civil forfeiture laws are running afoul of the Excessive Fines Clause in the Eighth Amendment.
Mr. Timb’s battles ended with a unanimous ruling in Timbs vs. Indiana, and for the first time ruled, the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of ‘excessive fines’ applies to both local and state governments. This rule applied to the case of Mr. Timb. The Supreme Court also ruled that excessive fines clause applies to the state, as well as to the civil forfeiture of assets of criminals.
Asset Forfeiture Abuse by Police
Civil asset forfeiture laws are abused by the police force and other government agencies. These seizures have shaken our nation’s conscience, and citizens are fighting back. Any property the police allege to be involved in a crime can be taken away from you, even if you are never arrested or convicted. Your cash, vehicle, and real estate can be taken away through civil asset forfeiture laws, and this loss can be permanent.
Aided by deeply flawed state and federal laws, police departments can use the forfeiture to benefit their bottom line, and the seizure becomes more of a profit-making scheme than the crime-fighting tool it was intended to be. Legally reclaiming property has become notoriously difficult, and calls for reform are growing louder across the nation.
How Civil Asset Forfeiture Affects Citizens
Charles Clarke is another victim of asset forfeiture. In 2014, he lost his entire life savings to law enforcement officials after preparing to board an airplane with $11,000 in cash. The money was an accumulation of five years of receiving financial aid, from various jobs held, gifts received from family, and educational benefits received from his mother being a disabled veteran. Mr. Clarke carried the cash on him to visit relatives, and since his bank had no physical branches in his area, he took it with him to prevent it from getting lost.
Law enforcement seized the money, stating they could detect marijuana on his bag. There was no marijuana present, nor any other drugs or illegal objects, so no evidence that Mr. Clarke was guilty of any crime; however, they were still able to seize his cash. Asset Forfeiture has become one of the most controversial practices in our justice system.
Civil Asset Forfeiture is different from criminal forfeiture where the property is taken as a result of a criminal conviction of a crime. Civil Asset Forfeiture is used by law enforcement agencies to take and keep the property on just a suspicion it might be connected to a crime. This forfeiture allows the police and other law enforcement officials to take the property from innocent persons who have never even been formally accused of a crime.
This evasion of the justice system is based on the legal fiction that property ‘thought’ to be connected to a crime, even if only an ‘alleged’ crime is considered ‘guilty.’ With civil forfeiture, the government or police proceed against the property, while in criminal forfeiture, the government or police proceed against the person charged of a crime.
Civil Forfeiture Process
There are two distinct actions involved with civil asset forfeiture. The first act is the seizure where police or law enforcement agencies confiscate your property they believe to be involved or related to criminal activity. This seizure can include your car, airplanes, your jewelry, or even your home. Seizures can involve musical instruments, farm equipment, or any piece of property they claim to be suspicious or possibly involved.
After the property and been taken or seized, the prosecution will file a civil action against the property to forfeit or keep it. This action is against your property, not you, and it is a civil action, not criminal. You do not have the rights under civil forfeitures, such as those rights given to the criminally accused, and will find yourself caught up in a difficult and challenging legal battle to regain your property.
The government faces a lower threshold for providing evidence regarding the forfeiture of property in a civil asset forfeiture case. This process flips the American legal tradition of being innocent until proven guilty, as even those who had nothing to do with the alleged crime can still lose their property. Another troubling aspect of civil asset forfeiture is that most state and federal law enforcement agencies have a financial stake in these proceedings as they are awarded some, if not all, the proceeds of the property taken. These financial incentives create a conflict of interest and encourage the pursuit of property instead of the pursuit of justice.
Incentives matter not just to individuals, but to groups as well. When it is allowed for an agency to retain some or all of the forfeited property, it encourages law enforcement to police for profit. These civil asset forfeiture laws pose serious risks to our due process rights and our property. One of these risks is the federal and state laws that permit law enforcement officials to gain financial rewards from civil forfeitures. Through these civil forfeitures, it enables prosecutors and the police to self-fund their financing operations beyond the control of city councils, state legislatures, and county commissions.
Outside the financial incentive issue of civil asset forfeiture is the fact that the process makes it disconcertingly easy for seizing and forfeiting property. This process stacks the deck against property owners from the beginning. All the police need is ‘probable cause’ to think the property is connected to a crime, and once taken, it is the owner’s problem of filing a legal claim to regain it.
How to Fight Back When Police Abuse Civil Asset Forfeiture
The United States Constitution has two fundamental concepts forming the basis of the Civil Asset Forfeiture Law. One of these concepts is the right for you to own property, and the second is Due Process. No matter who you are, whether you are a citizen, an immigrant, or even an illegal alien, you have the fundamental right to own property in the United States and have the privileges and protections of Due Process.
Due Process stands for the idea that as a person of the United States, you have the right to challenge the Government when it attempts to take away one of your Civil Rights. This right is a court proceeding where you will have:
- The right to see what evidence the Government has against you
- Present your own case with your criminal defense attorney
- Testify on your behalf
- Question witnesses
- Admit your evidence
- Challenge whatever the Government is accusing you of having committed
This right to Due Process, gives you the right in a Civil Asset Forfeiture to challenge the forfeiture.
When the Government takes your property, it is not automatically their legal property. The Constitution protects your rights to own private property, and the Government will have to satisfy legal requirements before gaining ownership. The Government must also notify you that your property has been seized, and allow you to challenge their claim and fight for the return of the seized property.
Your Civil Forfeiture Defense Attorney will have six questions to answer when making your legal challenge to regain possession of your seized property:
- Do you own the property?
- Do others co-own the property, or is it yours alone?
- Did you obtain the property through legal measures?
- Did you use the property in any illegal activities or use it to commit a crime?
- Can you claim the Innocent Owner Defense?
- Do you have a procedural defense, such as the Notice Requirement Defense?
Civil Asset Forfeiture When Police Abuse Their Power
Police in Detroit seized a 50-year-old woman’s car twice for alleged crimes they never even suspected her of committing. No one had ever been charged with a crime involving the civil forfeiture; nonetheless, the prosecutor in the case demanded Melisa Ingram pay thousands to have her vehicle returned to her, or the county would keep possession under civil forfeiture laws.
Melissa Ingram is now a plaintiff in a federal class-action lawsuit against Wayne County, Michigan. The suit is claiming the county seizes cars being driven into or out of an area that is known for generalized crimes and then forcing owners through the months-long legal process to challenge the seizures. The suit further claims these civil asset forfeitures are in violation of the Fourth, Eighth, and Fourteenth Amendment rights.
According to Ingram’s lawsuit, she had borrowed her car to a now-former boyfriend, who was to use the vehicle to search for a job. He was detained by police while driving the car as they suspected he was picking up a prostitute. He did not get charged with any crime, but police did seize the 2017 Ford Fusion he was borrowing from Melissa Ingram. After issuing Ms. Ingram a notice of seizure, and that they were going to keep the vehicle, she had to appear in front of the prosecutor and pay a ‘redemption fee’ of $1,355 to have her car returned to her.
Last summer, Ms. Ingram again lent her car to the boyfriend so that he could attend a barbecue at a friend’s home. He was again pulled over shortly after leaving home and was said to have a connection with drugs and prostitution. He was never charged with a crime, but the police again seized Ms. Ingram’s car and demanded yet another settlement payment from her. Ms. Ingram did not have the funds available to pay a second time and had to initiate bankruptcy proceedings instead and give up her interest in her car.
More than half of the states in the U.S. have passed some form of civil asset forfeiture reform in response to cases such as these that clearly point at police abusing the system. Wayne County in Michigan, however, runs a particularly aggressive forfeiture operation through a campaign they say targets prostitution, drugs, marijuana dispensaries, and high-crime areas. This county has seized more than 2,500 vehicles over a two-year period and earning themselves more than $1 million in asset forfeiture revenues.
There are still a lot of localities and states that have increased their fines and fees, and become more aggressive in seeking civil asset forfeiture. These fees, fines, and asset forfeitures become a practice by law enforcement to criminalize poverty. These processes become barriers for those with low income to reenter society, lead to unnecessary and expensive incarcerations, and take what little wealth our vulnerable community members have.
The process of civil asset forfeiture is undercutting the trust many have in the justice system. There is a lot of reform that still needs to be implemented to ensure we are not paying our governments from the backs of those least able to pay. New Jersey recently took significant steps in reforming its law enforcement’s use of civil asset forfeiture. In a bill passed 36-3, it now requires a criminal conviction in certain cases before the prosecution or the police can take one’s property using civil forfeiture. It is now time to get the rest of the states in the U.S. to follow this lead.
Where to Find Help When Police Abuse Civil Asset Forfeiture Near Me
If the police have taken your property under civil asset forfeiture, you need help to regain possession. Call the Asset Forfeiture Attorney at 888-571-5590 to find out how we can help you file the papers on time, and begin the process of getting back what belongs to you.