Justice Clarence Thomas Questions Civil Asset Forfeiture

By March 9, 2017Criminal Justice

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.

Author Clay Sutton

Clay Sutton is the Press Secretary for Generation Opportunity.

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  • Dale Blankenship

    Unless the person is arrested AND CONVICTED of a crime, the assets should, by law, have to be promptly returned. Otherwise it is simply theft. You cannot prove a negative, it is logically impossible to prove that you were NOT going to use that money to buy drugs, for example. That is why the burden of proof is on the state, to prove that you did (or planned to do) something illegal.
    Years ago, a traveler’s risk was from Highwaymen. Now the growing risk is from Highway Patrolmen.

  • goodwater

    Asset Forfeiture is a violation of the 5th Amendment. Clause 4 – ” nor be deprived of life, liberty OR property, without due process of law. A government who takes one property without due process is a fascist government. This is how the progressive judges have “reinterpreted” the Original Intent of the U. S. Constitution. There can be no re-interpretation of the Original Intent.

    “On every question of construction of the Constitution let us carry ourselves back to the time when the Constitution was adopted, recollect the spirit manifested in the debates, and instead of trying what meaning may be squeezed out of the text, or intended against it, conform to the probable one in which it was passed.” Thomas Jefferson

    “The first and governing maxim in the interpretation of a statute is to discover the meaning of those who made it.” James Wilson, Delegate and Signatory to the Constitutional Convention 1787

    “Do not separate text from historical background. If you do, you will have perverted and subverted the Constitution, which can only end in a distorted, bastardized form of illegitimate government.” James Madison