In late December, Reason covered a report which revealed that Missouri police had confiscated $2.6 million in just one year through a controversial civil asset forfeiture practice.
On paper, Missouri state law stipulates that a criminal conviction or a guilty plea is needed before the property is seized. Interestingly, the Institute for Justice gave Missouri a B+ for its civil asset forfeiture law, which makes us wonder how law enforcement agencies in the state get around this policy. In addition, these assets are supposed to go toward school funds.
However, law enforcement can circumvent this through the federal “equitable sharing” program. The Department of Justice offers a guide on what this program entails. Equitable sharing allows state and local police to bypass strict state asset forfeiture laws like those in Missouri. They can work around these laws by declaring the instances in which assets are seized as federal cases.
In Missouri’s case, police officers in St. Charles County would patiently wait for drivers to commit minor traffic violations. Once they saw the violation, they would proceed to pull the drivers over and question them. From there, drivers would be directed to a private towing lot where they would be subject to further questioning and searches. In cases where police dogs smelled marijuana in vehicles or on cash, the officers presented the motorists with an ultimatum: go to jail, or allow the police department to seize their possessions, and then be on their merry way with just a traffic ticket. A shakedown, to say the least, this is how police in Missouri are able to rake in cash despite the state actually having restrictive asset forfeiture policies.
Civil asset forfeiture is among the most controversial public policy issues in the states. Under the process, the government can seize and sell an individual’s property absent a criminal conviction.
Due to the fact that these seizures fall outside the scope of criminal matters, victims of civil asset forfeiture are not afforded the same protections as criminal defendants. There is no guarantee that an individual will have their property returned, regardless of the outcome of their case.
Civil asset forfeiture is a sly way that police departments raise revenue. It’s no surprise that law enforcement turns to asset forfeiture given that people don’t like paying too much in taxes. In turn, government actors have to get creative in their fundraising tactics. Civil asset forfeiture seems to have done the trick, as evidenced by the billions of dollars law enforcement agencies have collected through property seizures in recent times.
Thankfully, certain states like Alabama, Michigan, and North Dakota are taking steps to reform civil asset forfeiture policies. The federal government has remained aloof on the issue, so states are taking the initiative to scale back the practice. For the time being, the most comprehensive asset forfeiture reforms will likely come at the state level.
At this point, we have to call a spade a spade. Civil asset forfeiture represents legalized theft and is an affront to due process. This is one practice that should be categorically rejected by Americans who believe in foundational freedoms.