Politics & Policy

Trump Sides with the Sheriffs on Their Racket

President Trump holds a figurine presented by visiting county sheriffs, February 7, 2017. (Reuters photo: Kevin Lamarque)
Law-enforcement agencies jealously guard civil asset forfeiture because it lines their pockets.

The technique has been called (by this columnist) “immunity through profusion.” By keeping the molten lava of falsehoods flowing, the volcano that is Donald Trump can inundate the public and overwhelm his auditors’ capacity to produce a comparable flow of corrections. This technique was on display the other day when the president met with some sheriffs.

He treated them to a whopper that is one of his hardy perennials, market-tested during the campaign: He said the U.S. murder rate is “the highest it’s been in 47 years.” (Not even close: The rate — killings per 100,000 residents — is far below the rates in the 1970s and 1980s.) This Trump Truth (Senator Eugene McCarthy’s axiom: Anything said three times in Washington becomes a fact) distracted attention from his assertion to the sheriffs that there is “no reason” to reform law enforcement’s civil-forfeiture practices.

There is no reason for the sheriffs to want to reform a racket that lines their pockets. For the rest of us, strengthening the rule of law and eliminating moral hazard are each sufficient reasons.

Civil forfeiture is the power to seize property suspected of being produced by, or involved in, crime. If property is suspected of being involved in criminal activity, law enforcement can seize it. Once seized, the property’s owners bear the burden of proving that they were not involved in such activity, which can be a costly and protracted procedure. So, civil forfeiture proceeds on the guilty-until-proven-innocent principle. Civil forfeiture forces property owners, often people of modest means, to hire lawyers and do battle against a government with unlimited resources.

And here is why the sheriffs probably purred contentedly when Trump endorsed civil-forfeiture law — if something so devoid of due process can be dignified as law: Predatory law-enforcement agencies can pocket the proceeds from the sale of property they seize.

The Constitution’s Fifth Amendment says property shall not be taken without just compensation, and the 14th Amendment says it shall not be taken without due process of law. President Trump, 18 days from having sworn to “preserve, protect and defend” the Constitution, sympathized with the sheriffs’ complaint that they are being pressured to reform civil-forfeiture practices.

These practices are a textbook example of moral hazard — of an incentive for perverse behavior. They give law enforcement a financial interest in the outcome of cases.

It is conceivable that Trump’s studiousness has been stretched too thin to encompass the facts of civil asset forfeiture. He says he would like to “look into” it. Meanwhile, however, he is for it because he assumes “bad people” are behind the pressure for reform. And speaking of a Texas state legislator who favors reform, Trump said, “We’ll destroy his career.” Just another day on America’s steep ascending path back to greatness.

— George Will is a Pulitzer Prize–winning syndicated columnist. © 2017 Washington Post Writers Group

Most Popular

Culture

A Triumph at Mount Rushmore

If nothing else, President Donald Trump’s July Fourth speech at Mount Rushmore clarified the battle lines of our culture war. The New York Times called the speech “dark and divisive,” while an Associated Press headline declared, “Trump pushes racial division.” A Washington Post story said the speech ... Read More
Culture

A Triumph at Mount Rushmore

If nothing else, President Donald Trump’s July Fourth speech at Mount Rushmore clarified the battle lines of our culture war. The New York Times called the speech “dark and divisive,” while an Associated Press headline declared, “Trump pushes racial division.” A Washington Post story said the speech ... Read More
Culture

Why Progressives Wage War on History

Princeton University’s decision to remove the name “Woodrow Wilson” from its School of Public and International Affairs is a big win for progressive activists, and the implications will extend far beyond the campus. It hardly surprises me, in today’s polarizing environment, that my alma mater caved to ... Read More
Culture

Why Progressives Wage War on History

Princeton University’s decision to remove the name “Woodrow Wilson” from its School of Public and International Affairs is a big win for progressive activists, and the implications will extend far beyond the campus. It hardly surprises me, in today’s polarizing environment, that my alma mater caved to ... Read More
U.S.

Bad News about the Virus

On the menu today: an important update about indications that the coronavirus is now more contagious than it used to be, with far-reaching ramifications for how we fight this pandemic; a point on the recent complaints about the Paycheck Protection Program; and a new book for everyone closely following the debate ... Read More
U.S.

Bad News about the Virus

On the menu today: an important update about indications that the coronavirus is now more contagious than it used to be, with far-reaching ramifications for how we fight this pandemic; a point on the recent complaints about the Paycheck Protection Program; and a new book for everyone closely following the debate ... Read More
World

Putin’s Empire Strikes Back

In 1648, at the negotiating tables of Münster and Osnabrück, a panoply of European diplomats signed a document that would lay down the foundations of the modern world order: the Treaty of Westphalia. Naturally, the signatories did not realize the impact of their contribution to history. Far from a pack of ... Read More
World

Putin’s Empire Strikes Back

In 1648, at the negotiating tables of Münster and Osnabrück, a panoply of European diplomats signed a document that would lay down the foundations of the modern world order: the Treaty of Westphalia. Naturally, the signatories did not realize the impact of their contribution to history. Far from a pack of ... Read More