It is not hard to see why there is a broad and bipartisan critique nationally of the practice called civil asset forfeiture. A quick and simple example readily explains why.
To wit: Many people across the country have had their assets seized by criminal law authorities who claim their connection with some unlawful activity, such as drug manufacturing or trafficking. In many instances, law enforcers get to keep those assets – cash, houses, cars, etc. – even when a targeted individual is never convicted on a criminal charge.
Is that fair?
Apparently, most residents in Colorado and other states don’t think so. Reportedly, more than 80% of them oppose the practice.
And just as apparently, police departments, prosecutors and other criminal agencies don’t much seem to care about the mass discontent. There is a compelling rationale that drives the practice, and it relates solely to dollar signs, with state and federal authorities seizing – and keeping – billions in cash and other assets collected through forfeiture activity.
Here are a couple relevant numbers. An estimated $5 billion was raked in at the federal level alone in a single year recently. And the Washington Post recently reported that one federal agency “took more than $3 billion in cash over the past decade from people who were never [criminally] charged.”
The lawyer-led advocacy group Institute for Justice examines states’ forfeiture laws. The organization gives Colorado a passing “C” grade, but notes that authorities “should do more to protect Coloradans from abuse.” Law enforcers can keep seized assets in many cases where they fail to obtain a criminal conviction. And the standard of proof required to convict is low. Moreover, and because police agencies can keep up to 50% of all forfeiture proceeds for themselves, there is a clear “incentive to seize.”
The topic of asset forfeiture seems likely to remain centrally in the news and feature prominently as debate material in forums across the country. The Post notes that elements within both the Democratic and Republican political parties have recently endorsed material reforms.