Civil Forfeiture

Zara Kulish, Staff Writer


The United States has a very complex justice system, and it can be hard for the average citizen to know exactly what their rights are in any given situation. One of the laws that makes this so complicated is the Civil Forfeiture Act. The latest statute, officially titled the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act, was passed in 2000. It enables police and other law enforcement to seize money and personal property in a search, without having to prove any knowledge of criminal activity on the part of the person to whom the items belong. The owner need not be convicted or even charged for their property to be taken. This occurs because the ethos behind civil forfeiture is that it is the object in question which has violated the law.

This is supposed to aid in putting an end to organized crime, but instead of doing that, it led to a lot of court cases with an inanimate defendant, such as the U.S. v. approximately 64,695 pounds of shark fins. Since this is a very ineffective method of reducing crime, and spends a lot of money on trials for inanimate objects, many citizens have adverse reactions. In addition to spending tax dollars to prosecute objects that were just going to be confiscated anyway, the Civil Forfeiture Act can be easily taken advantage of by corrupt law enforcement officers. One example of this is Willie Jones of Nashville, Tenn. Jones, who worked in the landscaping industry, was on his way to Houston, Texas to buy shrubbery. A lot of nurseries prefer cash from out-of-town buyers, so Jones planned to go there with 9,000 dollars in cash. Officers detained him at the airport, suspicious of the large amount of cash, accused him of being involved in drug-related activities. They eventually let him go, but they kept the money, and refused to give him a receipt for it. Because he did not have 10 percent of the money seized to put up as a bond, he could not afford to challenge the seizure in the usual way.

There are many other examples of things like this happening, and there’s no guarantee that officers won’t take advantage.

However, even if this law was never taken advantage of, it still has severe drawbacks. The idea that with civil forfeiture, it is the item, not its owner that has violated the law is ridiculous, as an inanimate object cannot, of its own volition, break the law. In confiscating these things that belong to people who were uninvolved in whatever crime the object in question supposedly was, unintentionally punishes the innocent owners of these objects. They might not be charged with a crime, but they still lose something that they rightfully owned. Under civil forfeiture, it is not required that people be compensated for what is seized from them. This goes against the takings clause in the fifth amendment, which says the government can’t seize anything for public use without compensation. Even with compensation, they can’t seize anything that isn’t for public use, which is the case with many instances of civil forfeiture.

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