Law enforcement can seize property if they suspect it has been involved in a crime. Slowly, though, the ease with which this can be done is changing.
The rights afforded to people by the U.S. Constitution do not extend to their property. This means that when a law enforcement official suspects that someone’s property — including his or her car, money, home or gun — was involved in a crime, the official can seize that property and keep it.
When this happens, there’s next to nothing that individual can do about it.
Known as civil asset forfeiture, or “policing for profit,” the lawful policing policy is often described as a legal statute that most members of the public are largely unaware of until they or someone they know is affected.
Introduced in the 18th century, civil asset forfeiture was originally intended as a means for the U.S. government to legally claim the rights to items or “loot” left behind by pirates. Today, the law is reportedly used as a tool for dismantling large-scale drug operations, which is why civil asset forfeiture is more common in the Midwest and Southern states than in states with more progressive drug laws, such as California, Oregon and Washington state.
However, the practice is increasingly being seen as a way for police departments to make up for lost revenue. This is because people have had thousands of dollars in cash taken from them without being tried in court or even charged with a crime. The case of Alda Gentile, who was carrying $11,000 that she had planned to use to buy a home, is just one example of this.
According to the Institute for Justice, law enforcement in Minnesota seized more than $6.6 million worth of goods in 2012, 90 percent of which was used to supplement law enforcement budgets. The nonprofit law firm also noted that the police officers were not exactly seizing Ferraris and mansions from drug kingpins, as less than 4 percent of property seized in the state between 2003 and 2010 was worth more than $5,000.
Forfeited cash is often just put into the coffers of police departments, while property such as cars, guns or even PlayStations are often put up for auction. In the case of an auction, law enforcement keeps the profits from any sales.
One may assume that the Fourth Amendment would protect Gentile from having $11,000 in cash taken from her after she was stopped for speeding, especially since there isn’t a law dictating how much cash a person can legally carry. But there’s actually a loophole in the law that allows law enforcement to seize cash, stocks, real estate, vehicles, guns and other property, and keep it. Even if an individual is not charged or arrested for their involvement in any sort of crime, his or her property can still be seized lawfully because the property was suspected of having been involved in a crime. was essentially found guilty of being involved in a crime.
Constitutionally-granted rights, such as the right to a trial or a court-appointed lawyer, don’t apply to property, either. If someone wants to fight to get his stuff back, he is stuck paying 100 percent of the court fees. Further, his financial means to do so may have been affected by the fact that he just lost a great sum of money in the form of cash or a vehicle to the asset forfeiture.
Forfeiture laws vary by state in regards to how much a police department can legally seize, the amount of evidence required to prove that the property was used to commit a crime, and whether the burden of proof is on the property owner or law enforcement.
After analyzing the types of forfeiture laws in all 50 states, the Institute for Justice released a report in 2010, rating states based on the level of civil asset forfeiture abuse. West Virginia, Virginia, Texas and Michigan ranked as the worst states, since the burden on the state to prove that the property was involved in a crime was extremely low and police departments were able to keep 100 percent of everything they seized.
In Beckley, West Virginia, police seized $65,000 in cash and six different vehicles in 2008. The department used $10,000 of that money to purchase a new K-9 dog. In Texas, it was discovered that the 10 police departments that seized property the most relied on civil asset forfeiture to supplement about 37 percent of their total budgets.
Civil asset forfeiture is a troubling policy for those who are aware of it, and increased awareness of the practice in recent years has prompted lawmakers in some states to pass laws limiting law enforcement’s ability to seize a person’s assets.
Beginning on Aug. 1, Minnesota’s new legislation requires that before an individual’s property can be seized, law enforcement must either convict the individual or he or she must plead guilty to a crime or become an informant. The law, which received bipartisan support, also shifts the burden of proof onto the government, aligning with the language in the Constitution that says all persons are presumed innocent until proven guilty.
Since the amount of forfeiture-obtained revenue grew by 75 percent in the state between 2003 to 2010, even though the crime rate was actually dropping at that time, the general public and civil rights groups have come out in support of the law.
However, law enforcement has openly opposed the legislation. John Kingrey, executive director of the Minnesota County Attorneys Association, argued that more drugs and guns will be on the streets as a result of the law.
In response to arguments put forth by law enforcement, Lee McGrath, legislative counsel for the Institute for Justice’s Minnesota chapter, who advocated for this legislation, argued that law enforcement’s concerns about public safety are “a guise for law enforcement’s refusal to negotiate about reforming the forfeiture laws,” and said this law is actually quite modest.