Now that assets seized by federal law enforcement agencies exceed burglaries, bipartisan bill aims to stop the abuse
Christopher Ingraham wrote this on the WaPo’s Wonkblog last November 23 in his article “Law enforcement took more stuff from people than burglars did last year“:
Here’s an interesting factoid about contemporary policing: In 2014, for the first time ever, law enforcement officers took more property from American citizens than burglars did (see chart above).
Officers can take cash and property from people without convicting or even charging them with a crime — yes, really! — through the highly controversial practice known as civil asset forfeiture. Last year, according to the Institute for Justice, the Treasury and Justice departments deposited more than $5 billion into their respective asset forfeiture funds. That same year, the FBI reports that burglary losses topped out at $3.5 billion.
One caveat is that these are only the federal totals and don’t reflect how much property is seized by state and local police each year. Reliable data for all 50 states is unavailable, but the Institute of Justice found that the total asset forfeiture haul for 14 states topped $250 million in 2013. The grand 50-state total would probably be much higher.
Boil down all the numbers and caveats above and you arrive at a simple fact: In the United States, in 2014, more cash and property transferred hands via civil asset forfeiture than via burglary. That represents something of a sea change in the way police do business — and it’s prompting plenty of scrutiny of the practice.
Thanks to some of the scrutiny of the obvious and well-documented abuses of civil asset forfeiture, some lawmakers are taking some much-needed legislative action to curb federal law enforcement agencies’ growing appetite for the legalized theft of private property from innocent Americans. Today, Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), along with about a dozen co-sponsors introduced bipartisan legislation to protect Americans’ property rights through civil asset forfeiture reform. The bill is titled the Deterring Undue Enforcement by Protecting Rights of Citizens from Excessive Searches and Seizures (DUE PROCESS) Act, and if passed would enact meaningful reforms to the federal civil asset forfeiture process. Here are links to the press release for the Due Process Act and the full text of the bill.
Some of the highlights of the Due Process Act are summarized below:
Reforms federal civil asset forfeiture programs
- Enhances procedural protections of forfeiture proceedings in both civil and administrative settings and prevents government overreach
- Increases the government’s burden of proof in civil asset forfeiture cases to help protect innocent victims
Strengthens protections for claimants
- Creates a right to counsel for Americans in all civil asset forfeiture proceedings
- Provides that a claimant may recover attorney’s fees in victorious cases against a government forfeiture
- Speeds up the process for the government to notify the property owner of a seizure
- Expands protections to innocent owners by requiring the government to prove the connection between the property and the offense and that the property was used intentionally in order to seize it
Increases accountability and oversight of seizures and forfeitures
- Requires the Inspector General to conduct a yearly audit on a representative sample of federal civil forfeitures to ensure they are being conducted within the letter and spirit of the law
- Requires the creation of two federal databases on forfeitures in order to make information more readily available to the public, including a catalog of federal forfeitures to assist those whose property has been seized and to provide broad details on the types of forfeiture, agencies involved, and the conduct that lead to forfeited property
MP: When law enforcement takes more property annually from Americans through a process of legalized theft than burglars take from us illegally, it’s time to stop that abuse of government power. Kudos to the sponsors of the Due Process Act for their efforts to protect innocent Americans from having their property and money wrongfully seized by law enforcement. As Ronald Reagan said once, “Government’s first duty is to protect the people, not ruin their lives.” Through the abuses of civil asset forfeitures, law enforcement agencies have ruined many innocent Americans’ lives. Hopefully some of those abuses will be curtailed with the passage of the Due Process Act.
Related: See the Institute for Justice’s statement of support for the Due Process Act here, where it refers to civil asset forfeiture as “one of the greatest threats to private property and due process in our nation today.”