Guest blog by Eapen Thampy of American’s For Forfeiture Reform.
I work for a non-profit research organization called Americans for Forfeiture Reform. We do research on a little known legal procedure called civil asset forfeiture.
Civil asset forfeiture laws are a set of laws at the state and federal levels that allow the police to seize property in a process that violates American citizen’s due process rights. Often, people who are never charged or convicted of a crime have their property taken from them. Worse, because a federal forfeiture provision allows the Department of Justice to return forfeiture money to local law enforcement, circumventing state laws regarding where forfeiture money is appropriated.
There are a several reasons why civil asset forfeiture laws pervert justice, but here are a couple of the most important: First, it distorts the incentives of law enforcement to prioritize enforcement of crimes that yield seizeable property at the expense of more legitimately structured law enforcement priorities. Second, at the state level, many state laws regarding forfeiture money are circumvented, allowing the police to become self-funding executive branch agencies. This is very dangerous for democracy.
Missouri has a constitutional provision, statutory law (including a reform bill signed by Holden in 2001), and binding state Supreme Court precedent that all direct forfeiture money in Missouri to an education fund. My research indicates that despite all this, at least $50 million and perhaps more was diverted from Missouri’s education funds in 2008 and 2009. In a climate of budgetary crisis, this money is vitally needed to protect our most valuable resources, our children.
In California, the amount of money diverted from the state’s general fund over 2008-2009 was over $130 million, and may be much higher. Civil forfeitures in California are particularly problematic because law enforcement agencies have been laying off employees for enforcement of all other crimes, including crimes of violence. Yet aggressive law enforcement actions against producers and consumers persist, because the federal government keeps paying California’s local law enforcement to prioritize enforcement of cannabis laws that result in seizeable property and ready cash. This should be a particular concern to Proposition 19 advocates, because it means that the federal government can indirectly leverage tens of millions of dollars of forfeiture money against the likelihood of Proposition 19 passing.
I work for two things: First, I want to pass a federal law that says all forfeitures must be criminal forfeitures, requiring a criminal conviction, and made as part of a sentence. There is some room for excepting emergency or wartime forfeiture powers, but there must be strict limits, civilian oversight, and transparent action. This will protect basic due process rights. Second, I want to end the DOJ’s ability to criminally circumvent state laws by ending the Equitable Sharing program. This is a benefit to every one of the 50 states where money is diverted from the state general funds.
If this seems like a compelling and worthwhile cause, I am looking to raise $3,000 dollars by the 20th of August to cover the cost of obtaining police records on incidents, seizures, and financial statements on forfeiture practices around the nation. This is material that will be digitized for public viewing and will form the basis for significant academic and media coverage of forfeiture abuses. We also are sending one of our staff members to do some investigative research in Tehana, Texas, a town where civil forfeiture actions were used by Tehana police to take hundreds of thousands of dollars from law-abiding black Americans traveling through the town. Please contribute to our efforts; even a small donation will be valuable to our work. You can donate here: http://forfeiturereform.com/how-you-can-help/
Americans for Forfeiture Reform