The practice, which allows law enforcement officials a wide berth when dealing with what they deem to be suspicious circumstances regarding the possession of cash or property, allows police to simply take money or assets from an individual based on essentially nothing. Once their assets are seized, it is up to the individual to prove their innocence.
As common law in the United States suggests, we’re supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but with civil forfeiture laws the exact opposite is true.
On Monday, in a one line order, the Supreme Court refused to hear a case related to civil asset forfeiture, but George H. W. Bush appointed Justice Clarence Thomas had some strong words about the practice:
“This system — where police can seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use — has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses,” wrote Thomas. “I am skeptical that this historical practice is capable of sustaining, as a constitutional matter, the contours of modern practice.”
Thomas went on to outline his concerns, noting that legal precedent ― most recently in the Supreme Court’s 1996 Bennis v. Michigan decision ― has been based largely on “early statutes” involving property related primarily to piracy and customs.
The evolution of civil forfeiture as a weapon in the drug war has led to dramatic surge in its use over the past 30 years, with law enforcement authorities reaping billions of dollars in cash and goods for their coffers. Although the practice once focused on the seizure of pirate ships and cargo, police now routinely use it to sweep up cash, cars, jewelry and even real estate from people based solely upon the suspicion of criminal activity.
In 2014 the government seized $14 billion in assets from Americans who were presumed guilty before any trial had taken place. That amounts to more money than burglars and thieves stole in the same year.
With President Trump appearing to be a fan of the practice, much like his predecessor Barack Obama, we suspect this year will be a record breaker for the “legalized” theft of billions more from the American people.