There is some good news for the future of civil liberties if Americans can somehow find a way to get their legislators and elected law enforcement to manifest their own esteem for constitutional law. The first piece, however, is in place: a new Rasmussen poll reveals that 70 percent of Americans oppose the legalized theft known as civil forfeiture laws.
According to Rasmussen’s report, “Americans strongly believe someone needs to be convicted of a crime before their property can be seized, even though that’s contrary to current federal law and police practice.”
Many people are not aware of the current law. Of those who do, many are persuaded by surface-level arguments about fighting crime, drugs, etc. They don’t know how directly unconstitutional and unbiblical such laws actually are. Current law is described simply and accurately enough by the Wikipedia entry on “Asset forfeiture.” Read carefully:
Federal civil forfeiture cases usually start with a seizure of property followed by the mailing of a notice of seizure from the seizing agency (generally the DEA of FBI) to the owner. The owner then has 35 days to file a claim with the seizing agency. The owner must file this claim in order to later protect his property in court. Once the claim is file[d] with the agency, the U.S. Attorney has 90 days to review the claim and to file a civil complaint in U.S. District Court. The owner then has 30 days to file a judicial claim in court asserting his ownership interest. Within 20 days of filing the judicial claim, the owner must also file an answer denying the allegations in the complaint. Once done, the forfeiture case is fully litigated in court.
In civil cases, the owner need not be judged guilty of any crime; it is possible for the Government to prevail by proving that someone other than the owner used the property to commit a crime.
1) Police can seize your property without charging (let alone convicting) you with a crime.
2) Your property itself is then considered the property of the agency that seized it.
3) In order even to have a chance at regaining your property, you must file three separate claims, meeting separate deadlines, satisfying separate agencies or courts.
4) Any of the claims can be denied or rejected by the reviewing agency or court. This will complicate the process, and in some cases end it, leaving you without remedy.
5) In the first case, the reviewing agency is also the agency that now owns the property and will keep it if it prevails. This is a conflict of interest.
6) The third claim must prove the innocence of your property, so to speak, which has already been considered guilty and seized, in a court of law.
7) Even if you are personally innocent, you may still not get your property back.
A while back, Reason.com wrote a good exposé on the schemes:
Over the past three decades, it has become routine in the United States for state, local, and federal governments to seize the property of people who were never even charged with, much less convicted of, a crime. Nearly every year, according to Justice Department statistics, the federal government sets new records for asset forfeiture.
But it’s not just the Feds:
[U]nder many state laws, the situation is even worse: State officials can seize property without a warrant and need only show “probable cause” that the booty was connected to a drug crime in order to keep it, as opposed to the criminal standard of proof “beyond a reasonable doubt.” Instead of being innocent until proven guilty, owners of seized property all too often have a heavier burden of proof than the government officials who stole their stuff.
(The Economist also has a good piece.)
Local officials, especially police and sheriff’s departments, profit enormously from this practice. I know one gentleman on a committee for one of the major political parties. He told me they were to discuss in one particular meeting a resolution regarding a very minor reform to civil asset forfeiture laws—merely to bring oversight to how law enforcement agencies must report seized revenue to the state. And this was just a resolution—it had no direct bearing on even the party platform, let alone any law. It is during this time, before such a meeting, that concerned partisans can voice their support or opposition to influence committee members’ vote—much like calling you representatives. Before this particular meeting, the only person to contact him in opposition to this resolution was . . . wait for it . . . his local sheriff.
Reason tells us why:
Municipalities have come to rely on confiscated property for revenue. Police and prosecutors use forfeiture proceeds to fund not only general operations but junkets, parties, and swank office equipment. A cottage industry has sprung up to offer law enforcement agencies instruction on how to take and keep property more efficiently.
The main point here is that departments grow dependent upon the increased revenue. Grants and revenues put more officers on the streets, buy new equipment, new tools and new toys, etc. But then the budget for these new boots comes due next year: the chief or sheriff has to keep the money coming in to support this massive force—and the massive force is necessary, after all, because we’re fighting crime. You don’t want a sheriff soft on crime do you? You don’t want the liberals to report increased crime statistics and capture your local offices do you? So the civil forfeiture continues, in the words of Papa Bush, “to put more cops on the streets.”
But here’s the problem: if the laws are tyrannical specifically regarding cops confiscating property; if those cops have a strong financial incentive to confiscate property (else they lose their jobs); indeed, if those cops’ very livelihood is predicated upon continuance of confiscating property even from innocent people—i.e., tyranny; then the only logical outcome in this scheme is that “more cops” equals more tyranny.
In short, if the laws are unconstitutional, then more law enforcement means more trampling of the constitution. And that can only mean innocent people will suffer.
And when the increased revenue also goes to fund “junkets, parties, and swank office equipment,” then we’re on the road to Versailles—our elected representatives have become our feudal overlords and monarchical masters who will rob and plunder us so they can have pretty fountains and balls.
The good news, however, is that the plundered masses aren’t stupid. We know when we’re being raked and shaken down. We know at least the basics of our common rights. As the poll report states:
After all, 84% of American Adults agree with the basic principle of criminal justice in this country that even someone charged with a crime is innocent until proven guilty. A new Rasmussen Reports national telephone survey finds that just 11% think someone is guilty until proven innocent.
Perhaps it’s appalling that even 11 percent think people charged are guilty until proven innocent (though I’d like to see a correlation between that 11 percent and the percentage of respondents employed by the government, or paid as its agents). Nevertheless, I’ll take the 84 percent any day.
Now the hard part: how to get legislators to listen to the vast majority of their constituents, and law enforcement to comply with better laws—or better yet, to resist the temptation as it is now.