While many states are moving to curb excessive asset forfeiture, making the process more transparent and considerate of property rights, the federal government is now openly defending the practice saying, “criminal and civil forfeiture actions are often vital to cases, and allow us to punish criminals and compensate victims.”
While the statement may be true, it disregards the innumerable assets that are seized and wrongfully retained under civil forfeiture, forcing innocent property owners to fight for their possessions.
In the post, the Federal Bureau of Investigation defends asset forfeiture as an effective law enforcement tool, using examples of legitimate forfeiture to advance their argument. Among these uncontroversial takings were cases of seized drug dens turned into safe houses, seized antiquities intended to finance the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, and the recovery of millions of dollars stolen from political campaigns and nonprofits.
Regarding civil forfeiture, the report says “it allows us to obtain assets of fugitives who have escaped the arm of the law or subjects who reside outside of our borders.” The problem is that for every one of these massive, but rightful, seizures you have hundreds, if not thousands, on the local level and far fewer of those are as justified.
For every legitimate case you have one like that of the Slatic family of San Diego. The family of four, including two young daughters, had each one of their bank accounts seized because James Slatic was a partner in a medical cannabis business. The California-based business was not only legal and licensed, but also paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to state and federal taxes annually. None of the owners, or employees have been charged with a crime.
The Sourovelis family of Philadelphia whose 22-year old son was arrested at home on a $40 drug charge is another example. The parents, who claim to have had no knowledge of their son’s behavior, said a month after the arrest police came back to seize their house and forced the family out. The case wasn’t brought against the family, but against the house itself. After the Institute for Justice stepped in to defend them, and the case garnered national attention, the District Attorney announced that the charges were going to be dropped.
And then there’s Tan Nguyen who, after winning $50,000 in Las Vegas, was pulled over for driving three miles over the speed limit. Nguyen was not arrested, charged with a crime, or even ticketed, but his winnings were seized. In the lawsuit filed in federal court he claimed that the officer told him he would seize his car too unless he “got in his car and drove off and forgot this ever happened.” He eventually reached a settlement with Humboldt County, Nevada and they returned his money and reimbursed him $10,000 in attorney’s fees, which isn’t an outcome that most asset forfeiture victims have the resources available at their disposal to pursue.
The purpose of these examples isn’t to say that every asset forfeiture case is an instance of abuse. But, in the FBI’s defense of the practice they clearly cherry-picked cases that fit the narrative of it being an effective tool used responsibly.
While criminal asset forfeiture is an effective tool that law enforcement should have at their disposal, civil asset forfeiture places an undue burden on otherwise innocent property owners by forcing them to defend their property against charges.
The process needs significant reform in every area; it needs to be more accountable, evidentiary standards should be increased, innocent property owners should be afforded the protection provided in the constitution, and anything that can remotely incentivize law enforcement to wrongfully seize assets needs to be addressed.
Since it seems that federal law enforcement agencies have no interest in acknowledging the program’s downsides and only seek to increase forfeitures, it’s encouraging that states are taking the initiative to reform the process.