Civil asset forfeiture began as a way for the United States government to combat piracy and protect American citizens. Ships involved in criminal activity were confiscated to cripple smuggling operations.
Now, the government plays pirate. In the 1980s, Congress passed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act, allowing law enforcement to keep a large percentage of what is seized, providing a huge incentive for aggressive civil asset forfeiture tactics.
Civil asset forfeiture (or civil forfeiture) is a legal procedure that allows the government to seize property owned by people suspected of wrongdoing. Unlike criminal asset forfeiture, civil forfeiture does not require a person to be convicted of a crime. Not only can cash be seized, but other assets like cars and even houses can be confiscated by law enforcement.
Recently, the Supreme Court denied a review of Leonard v. Texas, a $200,000 civil asset forfeiture case. Justice Clarence Thomas explained the decision and took the opportunity to question the constitutionality of modern civil forfeiture in a one-justice opinion.
Justice Thomas writes:
“This system — where police can seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use — has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses. According to one nationally publicized report, for example, police in the town of Tenaha, Texas, regularly seized the property of out-of-town drivers passing through and collaborated with the district attorney to coerce them into signing waivers of their property rights.
In one case, local officials threatened to file unsubstantiated felony charges against a Latino driver and his girlfriend and to place their children in foster care unless they signed a waiver. In another, they seized a black plant worker’s car and all his property (including cash he planned to use for dental work), jailed him for a night, forced him to sign away his property, and then released him on the side of the road without a phone or money. He was forced to walk to a Wal-Mart, where he borrowed a stranger’s phone to call his mother, who had to rent a car to pick him up.
These forfeiture operations frequently target the poor and other groups least able to defend their interests in forfeiture proceedings.”
Millennials and low-income workers often lack the resources to mount a legal defense against aggressive civil forfeiture tactics, yet they are likely targets of the system.
Justice Thomas suggested that the Supreme Court may examine civil forfeiture in the future. Hopefully, other justices recognized that the modern civil asset forfeiture system is legalized theft that profits from innocent citizens.