Asset Forfeiture = Theft

Rev. Saeed Richardson Ending Forfeiture Seizure, IL, Protestant Perspectives

Image credit, Tom Wolfe 

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.

In the tenth chapter of John’s telling of Jesus’s public ministry, we read the uplifting message: Christ has come so that all people may have an abundant life (John 10:10). For those of His time and for those of our time, this message encourages all who hear. However, Christ also acknowledges a grave threat to this abundant life in the preceding words of that same verse. It is the thief, He declares, who comes to steal, kill, and destroy innocent lives, thus devastating the hope-filled life of which Jesus spoke.

As children, perhaps we recall cartoons portraying thieves as sketchy, awkward characters who concealed their faces with bandanas or handkerchiefs. As adults, our profiles of thieves may have changed from something comical to a much more devious viewing that still warrants feelings of suspicion and distrust. Whatever one’s conceptualizations, it seems preposterous to consider those entrusted to protect and serve citizens – police officers – as maintaining the appearance of thieves.  Yet, this may very well be the case.

Losing a car, a home, or large amounts of cash simply due to hunch or suspicion is a direct contradiction to the due process of “innocent proven until guilty,” and is unconstitutional as set forth in the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments. Moreover, this practice is highly destructive when transportation to a job or medical provider, money to pay for groceries or rent, and the very home in which one lives all can be jeopardized with the stroke of a pen. The burden of seizure is most often levied upon the families, children, and friends of those presumed guilty, as well, even when not present during the engagement with law enforcement officers. This is clearly the stealing, killing, destroying, and dismantling of life that characterizes the thief of which Christ spoke. While the reference to John may be obscure to some, surely our law enforcement officers are aware of the sixth commandment, “Thou shalt not steal.” 

In Illinois, from 2005 through 2015, law enforcement seized over $300 million from residents. This number is probably a low estimate since, as mentioned previously, standards for recording the data range from poor to non-existent. Illinois, however, now has the opportunity to change this practice and apply an additional level of accountability to civil asset forfeiture in the state.

In January, House Bill 689 and Senate Bill 1578 both were brought to the Illinois General Assembly to apply common-sense reforms to the asset seizure practice currently in use:

  1. Property cannot be seized without a conviction.
  2. Law enforcement will be required to justify the seizures.
  3. Innocent citizens will not have to navigate a complicated and expensive process to reclaim property.
  4. Standardization measures for recording the data – ensuring higher levels of transparency – will be enacted.

CNDP is asking all clergy and lay leaders in Illinois to join us in declaring that Illinois must have significant reform of its civil asset forfeiture laws. We urge you to Take Action by contacting your local representatives

Reform Civil Asset Forfeiture in Illinois

Urge the Illinois General Assembly to support HB 689 and SB 1578 to reform asset forfeiture measures