More than burglars

Abuse of civil forfeiture system cries out for reform

Earlier this year we told you the story of Andrew Clyde, the gun dealer from Athens, Ga., whose bank account was looted of $950,000 by Internal Revenue Service agents who thought his cash deposits looked suspicious.

 

Clyde was never convicted of a crime, or even charged with one, but it took him nearly $100,000 in legal fees and a $50,000 payment to the IRS to get his money out of “civil asset forfeiture” through federal court.

Turns out there are plenty of Andrew Clydes out there, based on a recent study by the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit civil liberties organization.

Its recent report showed the federal government confiscated $4.5 billion from Americans through civil asset forfeiture in 2014, which is more than the $3.9 billion that the FBI says was stolen in burglaries that same year.

Let that sink in a moment: Government agents took more money and property from Americans last year than
burglars.

This page has called for major changes to state and federal civil asset forfeiture laws to stop the government from taking people’s property on mere suspicion alone. But the Arlington, Va.-based institute’s shocking report demonstrates just how urgent the problem is.

Congress should enact reforms such as the bipartisan FAIR act, which would increase the burden of proof at the federal level and eliminate individual agencies’ abilities to profit from the assets they seize. That should be a top priority. State legislatures should follow suit.

Georgia and South Carolina state forfeiture laws are particularly abysmal, with each state scoring a “D-minus” on the Institute of Justice’s report. Police in Georgia, for example, can seize property even if it doesn’t belong to the person they suspect of criminal activity. So not only can police take your property on mere suspicion, they can do it when it’s not even in your possession. How perverse.

But reform legislation should only be considered a first step. Eventually, the only way to eliminate this theft-by-government is to completely abolish civil asset forfeiture.

There’s no reason not to: Under no circumstances should the government take property away from someone not convicted of a crime.

But that’s precisely what happened in more than 87 percent of federal asset seizures last year, according to the report. That means that in the vast majority of cases, the government didn’t have to charge anyone, didn’t have to present evidence of illegal activity and didn’t have to give the property owner his or her “day in court” in order to take and keep their assets.

And if those people fought to get their stuff back, as Mr. Clyde’s case shows, they often paid a pretty penny just to contest the seizure.

The flawed federal civil asset forfeiture laws, and the equally unfair state laws they have influenced, grew out of the war on drugs because law enforcement needed a way to put cartel leaders and large-scale traffickers out of business. But it’s obvious that too many forfeiture proceedings are being initiated against low-level criminals and – in the most egregious cases – people who aren’t criminals at all.

Something has gone horribly awry when Americans have more reason to fear the government than burglars.

More