Center for Property Rights

C⁠i⁠v⁠i⁠l forfe⁠i⁠⁠t⁠ure laws an assaul⁠t⁠ on proper⁠t⁠y r⁠i⁠gh⁠t⁠s

By: The James Madison Institute / 2016

Sun Sentinel
Civil forfeiture laws an assault on property rights
By: Daniel Peterson

Did you know your property could be seized by law enforcement officials based on the suspicion you have committed a crime? In fact, in 2014, law enforcement seized more property than burglars did. Yes, you read that correctly. This is a little-known, but shocking fact from the Institute for Justice of which Floridians should be aware. The reason? Under the current policy of civil forfeiture, law enforcement officials can stop you, seize your property and assume ownership of it without making a charge or arrest.

Once proven innocent, it is up to the owner of the seized property to pursue having that property returned. This may involve hiring an attorney and going through lengthy, expensive legal proceedings. For this reason, many owners either accept a settlement offer for less than the value of their seized property or simply walk away without claiming their rightfully owned property.

Civil forfeiture was initially used in the U.S. to enforce duties and excise taxes. But, in the 1980s, law enforcement agencies began to use it to supplement their resources. Vehicles, boats, cash, jewelry and other forms of property have been seized and, in some cases, kept and used by the agency for its operations or to purchase equipment. Other times, it has been sold for profit or given to a favored charity.

It is not difficult to see how corruption could propagate due to the potential profit motive through seizure. In many cases, the seizure of cash was particularly attractive.

Many states have reformed their civil forfeiture laws to remove potential profit motives. For example, the North Carolina Constitution requires all seized funds to be applied to public schools. However, a more important question remains: Regardless of where the seized property ends up, is it right to take property based on suspicion and without an arrest being made?

Addressing this concern, several states have banned civil forfeiture or now require a criminal conviction. These kinds of reforms would serve citizens' property rights and build confidence in law enforcement.

Currently, a bill sponsored by Sen. Jeff Brandes, R-St. Petersburg, and co-sponsored by incoming Senate President-designateJoe Negron, R-Stuart, is working its way through its final committee stops. This bill, along with its House counterpart (sponsored by Rep. Larry Metz, R-Groveland, and Rep. Matt Caldwell, R-Lehigh Acres), would prohibit seizure without arrest and clarify what should happen to seized property.

Brad Cates, former director of theU.S. Justice Department's Asset Forfeiture Office (1985-89), wrote an opinion in the Wall Street Journal recognizing that civil asset forfeiture is now policing for profit.

During the Reagan administration, I helped establish these programs because I believed they would quickly channel seized criminals' profits into the fight against organized crime and drug cartels. Yet over time, we have created a new bad incentive: policing for profit, out of the reach of the proper legislative budget process … three decades ago I helped create our civil asset forfeiture system; now it is time to end it.

We couldn't agree more. The time is now for civil asset forfeiture reform.