Imagine a world where police officers routinely confiscate the property of civilians, solely on the basis of police criminal conduct charges. Imagine that these allegations were never considered by a judge and that criminal conduct charges were often never even laid.
Unfortunately, you don’t have to imagine anything, because this is the world we live in.
This is the upside down world of civil seizure and confiscation – where the mere suspicion of criminal conduct by a law enforcement officer is enough for the seizure of property. A simple charge may be sufficient evidence to seize, say, a car, house or purse containing money – and for eventual confiscation of property from the government.
The scope of this confiscation has grown so great that in recent years the value of property seized solely by the federal government exceeds the value of property stolen by burglars.
The protections against seizure and confiscation are so fragile that they encourage law enforcement officers to treat every roadside encounter as an interaction with a career criminal. The law encourages the investigation, detention and search of motorists for crimes unrelated to automobile travel. Possession of cash, for example, is sufficient proof that the cash is linked to a crime and therefore justifies its confiscation.
Why are the police encouraged to continue with the seizure and confiscation of currency and other valuables? Because a large part of this confiscated property is funneled into law enforcement budgets. Street officers are praised by their commanders when they execute money seizures. As might be expected, this practice creates a wedge between law enforcement officials and honest, law-abiding citizens. Some motorists will begin to view officers as predators, while some law enforcement officers will begin to see those they have sworn to protect and serve as prey.
Where are our public officials who are supposed to seek justice? They have to balance budgets and are constantly on the lookout for new sources of income. Law enforcement agencies can reduce their budgetary burdens by increasing revenues from foreclosures and confiscations. This makes policymakers resistant to the types of good government that call for reforms in foreclosure and confiscation – reforms that would reduce the bottom line of government budgets.
To compound the problem, proponents of seizure and confiscation have pulled the wool over the eyes of policymakers, convincing them that a typical seizure involves hundreds of thousands of dollars taken from drug traffickers. The truth is, the typical cash foreclosure is actually less than a thousand dollars.
This leaves the typical coin owner out of luck. If the victim of a seizure of money wants their money back, in order to repossess it, that person must demonstrate in court that it is not related to criminal conduct. Imagine the victim trying to find a lawyer to represent her in court. Legal representation costs several thousand dollars. Even if you won in court, you would still be a net loser. Most of the people whose money is seized cannot afford to appear in court and demand the return of their property. It means they lose.
It doesn’t have to be that way. A few states – Maine, Nebraska, North Carolina, and New Mexico – have completely abolished civil forfeiture. Perhaps more states will one day adopt reforms to protect the property of their citizens.