I have written many times of the evil of civil asset forfeiture by authorities in many states, whereby the property of people is seized by the police and other state authorities even though the people are never charged with any crime. This constitutes nothing less than theft by the state and the victims (as usual) are ordinary people who do not have the resources to fight the authorities and get their property back. Police and local government were using this as a form of revenue to pay salaries, buy equipment and cars, and renovate their facilities.
But thanks to the increased attention paid to this abuse of power (John Oliver did one of his excellent in-depth reports on this back in October 2014), pressure built to end this practice and some reforms are occurring.
First, in January of this year, the justice department said that local police could no longer use federal law to seize assets.
Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. on Friday barred local and state police from using federal law to seize cash, cars and other property without warrants or criminal charges.
Holder’s action represents the most sweeping check on police power to confiscate personal property since the seizures began three decades ago as part of the war on drugs.
Holder’s decision allows limited exceptions, including illegal firearms, ammunition, explosives and property associated with child pornography, a small fraction of the total. This would eliminate virtually all cash and vehicle seizures made by local and state police from the program.
While police can continue to make seizures under their own state laws, Equitable Sharing was easy to use and required most of the proceeds from the seizures to go to local and state police agencies. Some states have higher standards of proof for forfeitures and some require seized proceeds to go into the general fund.
Then starting July 1, some states such as New Mexico and Montana further curbed the practice.
Earlier this year, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock signed a law that requires the government to first obtain a criminal conviction before taking and keeping someone’s property through civil forfeiture. This legislation also shifts the burden of proof onto the government—where it belongs—when spouses, neighbors and other innocent owners try to get back property used by a suspect without their knowledge.
New Mexico went even further and abolished civil forfeiture outright. As in Montana, law enforcement can only forfeit property after a criminal conviction. Crucially, this new law requires that all forfeiture money be deposited in the general fund, preventing it from becoming a police slush fund.
Good. I hope more states follow suit and the courts also crack down on this practice.