Law enforcement and asset forfeiture

On Tuesday I wrote about ‘More law enforcement out of control‘.  In similar vein, but giving a lot more background information, Sarah Stillman writes in the New Yorker about asset forfeiture.  Here’s an excerpt.

The basic principle behind asset forfeiture is appealing. It enables authorities to confiscate cash or property obtained through illicit means, and, in many states, funnel the proceeds directly into the fight against crime … In general, you needn’t be found guilty to have your assets claimed by law enforcement; in some states, suspicion on a par with “probable cause” is sufficient. Nor must you be charged with a crime, or even be accused of one. Unlike criminal forfeiture, which requires that a person be convicted of an offense before his or her property is confiscated, civil forfeiture amounts to a lawsuit filed directly against a possession, regardless of its owner’s guilt or innocence.

. . .

But a system that proved successful at wringing profits from drug cartels and white-collar fraudsters has also given rise to corruption and violations of civil liberties. Over the past year, I spoke with more than a hundred police officers, defense attorneys, prosecutors, judges, and forfeiture plaintiffs from across the country. Many expressed concern that state laws designed to go after high-flying crime lords are routinely targeting the workaday homes, cars, cash savings, and other belongings of innocent people who are never charged with a crime.

. . .

Forfeiture in its modern form began with federal statutes enacted in the nineteen-seventies and aimed not at waitresses and janitors but at organized-crime bosses and drug lords. Law-enforcement officers were empowered to seize money and goods tied to the production of illegal drugs. Later amendments allowed the seizure of anything thought to have been purchased with tainted funds, whether or not it was connected to the commission of a crime. Even then, forfeiture remained an infrequent resort until 1984, when Congress passed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act. It established a special fund that turned over proceeds from forfeitures to the law-enforcement agencies responsible for them. Local police who provided federal assistance were rewarded with a large percentage of the proceeds, through a program called Equitable Sharing. Soon states were crafting their own forfeiture laws.

Revenue gains were staggering. At the Justice Department, proceeds from forfeiture soared from twenty-seven million dollars in 1985 to five hundred and fifty-six million in 1993. (Last year, the department took in nearly $4.2 billion in forfeitures, a record.) The strategy helped reconcile President Reagan’s call for government action in fighting crime with his call to reduce public spending. In 1989, Attorney General Richard Thornburgh boasted, “It’s now possible for a drug dealer to serve time in a forfeiture-financed prison after being arrested by agents driving a forfeiture-provided automobile while working in a forfeiture-funded sting operation.”

There’s more at the link.  I think it’s important reading.  Highly recommended.



  1. It doesn't matter whether it was begun with the best of intentions. It doesn't matter if the original targets were Certified Bad Guys. Asset forfeiture prior to a guilty verdict in a criminal trial is a Fourth Amendment violation, one of the most outrageous ever conceived, and a clear indication that "our" governments have gone into business for themselves.

  2. People with morals and foresight remarked at the time of the RICO statutes' passage that they were the very definition of a slippery slope. Anytime you offer a financial incentive to game the system, some people will do just that.

    What's worse is that the legal theory behind asset forfeiture is the medieval English concept of the deodand, the guilty object. The tree fell on someone? Well, the tree is guilty of murder, and so must hang! (And afterwards, cut up and burned for warmth, etc. "Hey, we confiscated all this cash which could only be used to buy drugs, eh? Why let it go to waste? Let's buy some cool cop toys!")

  3. Modern day asset forfeiture — made into law by people who read up on the Spanish Inquisition and said "Hey! That's a great idea!"

  4. This appears to be the equivalent of the Inquisition method of funding, a witch had to be alive to burn or the heirs got the property, so the dead from torture were still 'burned alive' to ensure the assets went to the 'proper authorities'. So, what incentive to find innocent?

  5. Any "law" which clearly abridges the foundational law of the land, which is the United States Constitution, is by definition – unlawful.

    The fact that "authorities" continue to use such illegal laws to benefit themselves should prove that these crimes should end and soon.

    Perhaps it'll take the imprisonment of the people responsible for actually carrying this stuff out AND allowing it, before it stops.

    But for that to happen, the powers that be have to be toppled legally.

    Which explains why I continually vote Constitution Party.

    I recommend people look it up.

    Pastor Glenn

  6. A case I remember reading about related to asset forfeiture. Man was innocent of the drug charges but killed by police during the raid.

    "The purpose of the raid, he wrote, was never to find some evanescent marijuana plantation. It was to seize Scott's ranch under asset forfeiture laws and then divide the proceeds with participating agencies,..".

  7. One minor quibble Francis; it's a 5th Amendment violation, not a 4th. "nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law". Well, probably a violation of both, to be honest, but the actual taking of the property would be a violation of the 5th.

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