There has been increased attention to the abuse of civil forfeiture laws. These are laws that enable authorities to seize the property of individuals even if they are never even charged with a crime and putting the burden on them to go through the complex and expensive legal process to get back their property. Mark Frauenfelder describes what happens in Philadelphia.
This is how the city’s forfeiture machine works: Property owners who have their cash, cars or homes seized must go to Courtroom 478. But Courtroom 478 isn’t a courtroom at all: there is no judge or jury, just a scheduler and the prosecutors who run the show. Owners who ask for a lawyer are frequently told their case isn’t complicated and a lawyer isn’t necessary, but are then given a stack of complicated legal documents to fill out under oath. Time and time again, property owners must return to Courtroom 478—up to ten or more times in some cases. If they miss a single appearance, they can lose their property forever.
Philadelphia’s forfeiture machine stacks the deck against property owners and leads city officials to police for profit instead of justice. To end these unconscionable and unconstitutional practices, the Institute for Justice and a group of property owners have brought a major, class-action lawsuit in federal court. The lawsuit will take the profit incentive out of civil forfeiture and protect innocent people who are caught in an upside-down legal process that treats them like cash machines while violating their constitutional rights.
In one case, a man could lose his home because his son was caught selling $40 worth of drugs outside the home.
A group called the Institute for Justice has started an online effort called End Forfeiture Now to explain how the law works, some of the people affected by it, and to put pressure on legislatures to act.
Radley Balko writes about a new bill introduced in Congress to curb this practice.