The Abuse of Civil Forfeiture and Its Dire Consequences
Civil forfeiture was once a little-used “legal backwater” in the United States that was only used in rare instances in which the owners of property involved in a crime could not be contacted. Today, however, civil forfeiture has grown into a “leviathan of injustice” that threatens the basic private property rights of all Americans.
In civil forfeiture, law enforcement agencies simply seize the property of those they suspect were involved in a crime, provided that their property at least was involved in some criminal activity. No charges are brought against the owners, and guilt is presumed instead of innocence. The legal action that ensues is in rem (against a thing) rather than in personam (against a person), which is used as an excuse to deprive the unaccused of their property on much thinner an evidentiary basis than would be needed in a criminal forfeiture case.
Some argue in favor of the practice of civil forfeiture, saying that it is a powerful tool that police can use to cripple drug lords and other criminals financially. They argue that the practice of siphoning seized cash and proceeds derived from seized property directly into the coffers of state and federal law enforcement agencies “converts criminal funds into policing funds” and benefits us all. The fact is, however, that the institutionalizing of “policing for a profit” and the disregard for the rights of innocent property owners lead to corruption. Once police know they can boost their agency’s budget by seizing property, they are incentivized to take it regardless of the exact details of the case.
Types of personal property often seized in civil forfeiture actions include automobiles, boats, expensive jewelry, firearms, real estate, cash on hand, and funds stored in bank accounts. Sometimes, this property is confiscated at traffic stops set up along suspected drug smuggling routes, especially on the U.S.-Mexico border. Out of state drivers and drivers of rental cars are frequently targeted, and stopped motorists are forced to sign a roadside property waiver to avoid being arrested themselves instead of just “having their property arrested.” This is clearly nothing less than extortion and police intimidation, and the ease with which this system can descend to total abuse is as obvious as it is alarming.
Proponents insist that civil forfeiture is almost always used only against those who are very likely criminals. Yet, across the past decade or so, some $20 billion is assets have been seized by civil forfeiture, and 85% of the time, the owner of the property is never accused of a crime. If the evidence was so strong that the property owner was a criminal, why are charges never pressed against them to the effect in a court of law? The answer is simple: civil forfeiture is a “way around” the ordinary protections of the law that lowers the standard of proof to make police seizures as easy as possible.
If you have been targeted for civil forfeiture, you are not at all alone- there are thousands of such seizures that occur every single year. But you are not alone in another sense too- the Law Office of Jacek Lentz, Asset Forfeiture Attorney, has the expertise to maximize your chances of getting your property back. Contact Jacek Lentz at 888-571-5590 for help with your civil forfeiture case in California and nationwide.