The Government Thuggery Of Civil Asset Forfeiture

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Posted: Sep 02, 2021 1:26 PM
The Government Thuggery Of Civil Asset Forfeiture

Source: AP Photo/John Minchillo

When people ask me why I’m a libertarian, I rarely mention high taxes and wasteful spending. Nor do I make philosophical arguments about the non-aggression principle. And it’s also unlikely that I’ll cite Ayn Rand.

Instead, I point out that all decent human beings should be libertarian because unconstrained government has the power to abuse people and wreck their lives.

Consider “civil asset forfeiture,” as described in this video.

When I read about some of the real-world cases involving asset forfeiture, it gets my blood boiling.

No wonder I’ve described it as “Venezuelan-style thuggery” and written that the practice is “disgusting, nauseating, reprehensible, and despicable.”

And, if that doesn’t get my point across, I have used other phrases to characterize asset forfeiture.

Let’s look at two odious examples of asset forfeiture that took place this year.

First, the Wall Street Journal editorialized earlier this year about a case in California, in which the FBI decided that it had the right to steal assets from safe deposit boxes simply because the financial institution was charged with crimes.

…the FBI raided U.S. Private Vaults in Beverly Hills in March, it did so after the business had been indicted for conspiring to launder money, sell drugs and other crimes. But the FBI also took control of $86 million in cash and valuables it found in the safe deposit boxes of people who haven’t been accused of a crime. Some of these folks have sued… The Institute for Justice is representing seven plaintiffs in this case. Their argument is that they have done nothing wrong and should not have to go through the cumbersome civil forfeiture process to prove that their cash, jewelry or precious metals are legitimately theirs. …the Fifth Amendment guarantees the right to due process before property can be taken. …The FBI forfeiture list on the contents of the seized boxes reports 14 that each held more than $1 million. Perhaps some of this comes from illegal sources, but the mere possession of cash is not proof of guilt. If the FBI and U.S. Attorney have proof of wrongdoing, bring it on. But the burden for depriving an American of property is on the government to prove guilt, not on the targeted to prove innocence.

Amen, America’s Founders gave us a Constitution to protect against this kind of abuse.

Second, we have a report from yesterday’s Washington Post about how cops stole $87,000 from a veteran.

Stephen Lara…was on his way to visit his daughters in Northern California…he had “a lot” of cash in his car. As he stood on the side of the road, police searched the vehicle, pulling nearly $87,000 in a zip-top bag from Lara’s trunk and insisting a drug-sniffing dog had detected something on the cash. Police found no drugs, and Lara, 39, was charged with no crime. But police left with his money… “I left there confused. I left there angry,” Lara said in an interview with The Washington Post. “And I could not believe that I had just been literally robbed on the side of the road by people with badges and guns.” It was only after Lara got a lawyer, sued and talked with The Washington Post about his ordeal that the government said it would return his money.

The article cites some of the critics, including the freedom fighters at the Institute for Justice.

…the case shows how the federal government abuses its asset forfeiture authority, by requiring those whose property is taken to prove their innocence to get it back. …“This is an inherently abusive power that state and local law enforcement should not have,” said Wesley Hottot, a lawyer representing Lara with the Institute for Justice, which advocates against civil asset forfeiture. “What we see almost exclusively are people like Stephen who — perhaps had quirky banking practices — but they’re not guilty of any crime. And yet, in the nation’s airports, on the nation’s roads, they’re treated by police as though a large amount of cash by itself is criminal. And that power is too dangerous to give every police officer on the street.” …Former U.S. attorney Joyce Vance said…“You can’t just take people’s stuff because you happen to find them with cash,” Vance said. “We still live in a country where people are innocent until they’re proven guilty.”

By the way, this is an issue where the Obama Administration moved policy in the right direction.

Attorney General Eric Holder curtailed use of the practice in the Obama administration, but Attorney General Jeff Sessions restored it under President Donald Trump. Though Attorney General Merrick Garland has rolled back many Trump-era changes at the Justice Department, he has not taken action on asset forfeiture.

By contrast, there’s nothing positive to say about what happened under the Trump Administration.

If you want to understand how bad Trump was on this issue, watch this video.


I’ll close with a bit of good news.

Several states have curtailed the abuse of civil asset forfeiture.

Even more promising, there are hopeful signs that the Supreme Court may rule that the practice is unconstitutional.

P.S. Just like intrusive and ineffective money-laundering laws, wretched asset forfeiture laws are largely the result of the foolish War on Drugs. One bad policy generates another bad policy. Lather, rinse, repeat.