Did you think that under the law we are innocent until proven guilty? Not when it comes to civil asset forfeiture. Police are allowed to seize property they suspect is connected to a crime. Usually, they take cars. Cash and electronic equipment are also likely objects of seizure if police decide to search where victims live. The burden is on owners to court to get their property back. They are not given counsel. Since most of the defendants are very poor, they cannot afford their own. The instructions on where and when they can plead their case are confusing or non-existent. If they don’t act fast enough, their property is auctioned off and proceeds handed over to law enforcement. It is estimated that a significant majority of individuals whose process is seized in Cook County end up never even trying to prove that their property should be returned. This is not surprising (if painful to watch). Without procedures telling them what to do, the victims of property seizure simply give up.
It’s easy enough to read about civil asset forfeiture and be angry at a system that seizes property and keeps it until the owners prove they have not committed a crime. Last week we wanted to get a more personal, first-hand view, of how the process works. All proceedings for civil asset forfeiture in Cook County are held in Room 1707 of the Daley Center. Anyone can go. We sat in on a docket of cases. Four prosecutors from the Cook County State’s Attorney were present. No one represented the four defendants waiting to be called. All were African-American.
In November of 2015, the Washington Post reported that in the previous year law enforcement had taken more property from people – including cash, automobiles, and even homes – than burglars had stolen. Burglary losses amounted to $3.5 billion, while, shockingly, the net asset of police seizures amounted to $4.5 billion. (via The Institute for Justice) More disturbingly, this number reflected only federal statistics, and not seizures by state police and local law enforcement, data that in most cases is extremely difficult to obtain. Law enforcement utilizes a practice known as civil asset forfeiture to permanently confiscate property they perceive to be involved in criminal activity. This is done without requiring officers to prove the person or the property is guilty and/or connected to criminal activity. The process to reclaim one’s property in the event of seizure is legally complex, expensive, and time-sensitive, making the extreme majority of assets logistically impossible for most people to reclaim. Furthermore, law enforcement is inherently incentivized to persist the practice as all funds obtained through asset forfeiture are re-directed to the operating budgets of their respective departments.
Most people understand that when a person has profited from criminal activity, the government can take steps to deprive that person of the illicit profits. But few understand that, through a practice called civil asset forfeiture, law enforcement can permanently take property they believe to be involved in criminal activity without ever having to prove anyone guilty of a crime, or even file charges.
Through this Drug Policy Alliance online form, tell your member of Congress to support the FAIR Act and roll back the drug war by ending civil asset forfeiture. To learn more about this issue, visit our Take Action page on Reforming Forfeiture Laws.