Many people are startled when they learn how civil asset forfeiture works, or that it even exists. These laws permit police and prosecutors to seize property — cash, cars, boats, houses, land — from people who have not been convicted of a crime. By charging the property, instead of the person, with criminal involvement, police can get around many of the protections that the Constitution requires be provided to an individual.
When assets are seized, the owners are presumed guilty until proven innocent. They have the burden of showing that their ownership of the asset was not the result of criminal activity. Otherwise, the government gets to keep the money. Proving the negative is very hard to do, particularly when the government has seized all your assets, you have no funds to hire a lawyer, and you have no right to counsel. That isn’t just unfair—it’s un-American.
This process creates a clear conflict of interest. The local police department profits from these seizures, even if they choose not to pursue a criminal conviction. The more they seize, the more money they have for underfunded expenses like new equipment and retirement programs. Civil asset forfeiture has turned many law enforcement agencies into modern ‘Sheriffs of Nottingham,’ robbing from the so-called rich to give to underfunded local police departments. Outraged citizens have taken to calling this nefarious process “policing for profit.”
In an attempt to protect the property rights of its citizens, many states have passed new laws reeling in the use and abuse of asset forfeiture. However still in most circumstances, the states can turn to their friends in the federal government for forfeiture assistance. The “equitable sharing” program allows federal authorities to “adopt” forfeiture cases that otherwise would be protected by state laws. In return the federal authorities kick back a portion of the profits from the seizure, allowing the federal government to circumvent protections put in place by state legislatures. This is nothing short of aiding and abetting.