No More Stealing by Government? A Long-Overdue Attack on Asset Forfeiture

Daniel J. Mitchell
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Posted: May 16, 2014 12:01 AM
No More Stealing by Government? A Long-Overdue Attack on Asset Forfeiture

Since I’m a public finance economist, I realize I’m supposed to focus on big-picture issues such as tax reform and entitlement reform. And I do beat those issues to death, so I obviously care about controlling the size and power of government.

But I like to think I’m also a decent human being. And this is why I get even more agitated when politicians and bureaucrats engage in thuggish behavior against comparatively powerless citizens.

Some of the worst examples of government thuggery are the result of “asset forfeiture,” which happens when governments confiscate the property of people who haven’t been convicted of any crime. Heck, sometimes they’re not even charged with any crime.

*Such as when the government wanted to steal someone’s truck because a different person was arrested for drunk driving.

*Such as when the government tried to steal the bond money a family has collected to bail out a relative.

*Such as when the government seized nearly $400,000 of a business owner’s money because it was in the possession of an armored car company suspected of wrongdoing.

*Such as when the government sought to confiscate an office building from the owner because a tenant was legally selling medical marijuana.

*Such as when the government killed a man as part of an anti-gambling investigation undertaken in hopes of using asset forfeiture to steal other people’s cash.

But we do have a bit of good news. All these horror stories seem to be causing a backlash.

Fox News has a very revealing article on how this system is under assault. The story begins by explaining how asset forfeiture is an open invitation for abuse and grossly inconsistent with the Constitution.

Civil forfeiture is when police and prosecutors seize property, cars or cash from someone they suspect of wrongdoing. …authorities don’t have to prove guilt, file charges or obtain a conviction before seizing private property. Critics say it is a process ripe for abuse, and one which leaves citizens little means of fighting back. “You breed a culture of ‘take first, ask questions later,’” Larry Salzman, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, told FoxNews.com. “It’s thuggish behavior.” …civil forfeitures represent a dangerous area of the U.S. justice system where, by law, a person is supposed to be presumed innocent until proven guilty and not the other way around.

The report from Fox cites a couple of reasons why asset forfeiture is misguided. One major problem is that it gives cops a budgetary incentive to steal.

In Tennessee, local law enforcement agencies get to keep 100 percent of all property seized through civil forfeiture – an incentive some say can tempt police to go after property for the wrong reasons.

Fortunately, people are now fighting this horrible procedure. The story explains that a former law enforcement official who is now a state lawmaker, Barrett Rich, is trying to reform Tennessee’s awful bill.

And Minnesota actually has eliminated this odious tactic. Here are some excerpts from a Forbes column.

In a big win for property rights and due process, Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton signed a bill yesterday to curb an abusive—and little known—police practice called civil forfeiture. Unlike criminal forfeiture, under civil forfeiture someone does not have to be convicted of a crime, or even charged with one, to permanently lose his or her cash, car or home. …Now the government can only take property if it obtains a criminal conviction or its equivalent, like if a property owner pleads guilty to a crime or becomes an informant. The bill also shifts the burden of proof onto the government, where it rightfully belongs.

Wyoming’s state legislature also is considering reform, so there are positive developments in many different states.

For more information, click here for a very good introductory video about civil asset forfeiture.

If you like videos, click here for a horrifying videoabout the government stealing $17,000 from an innocent man.

And here’s another video, this one about thegovernment stealing money from a family grocery store.

Last but not least, if you want to get more upset, here are some additional examples of non-forfeiture related government thuggery.

Gee, it’s almost enough to make a person a libertarian!