To Protect And Serve And Seize


Go read the New York Times’ article on civil forfeiture. Disclaimer: it is not for those with heart conditions, respect for the presumption of innocence, and/or due process.

In a nut shell, civil forfeiture is the way that law enforcement agencies go about seizing private property that they can connect to a crime. This seems like a laudable goal, until you hear the horror stories. The hotel seized because a handful of guests in decades possessed drugs. The speeding ticket that resulted in thousands seized.

The NYT article, however, reveals the gleeful greed of too many prosecutors and officers. They need money? The prosecutor will oblige. They think the car looks pretty sweet? Gonna seize that.

And witness too, the hardening of hearts (with a little casual racism thrown in). When the car doesn’t belong to the accused, too damn bad. The car goes on the auction block, the money goes into the coffers, anyway.

You’ll note the use of the term "accused" above. That is important. The individuals who were driving the cars, who possessed the money, who owned the motel, they have not been convicted of any crime. They are not criminals, just citizens who the government has its eye on. They may not even be accused. Civil forfeiture does not require criminal charges, much less convictions.

It is easy to push this sort of thing to side, to focus on the seizure of drug money, speed boats, gold plate tiger collars, diamond teeth prosthetics. And it is hard to focus on the potential for abuse.

But it is important. It is important, to protect the core of our justice system, the presumption of innocence. It is important, because citizens should not have to go begging to get back the car their son made the mistake of driving home from the bar. It is important, because if you fund police departments through the seizure of property, then police officers are incentivized to seize property. And that is a dangerous world to live in.