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

George Will — George Will is a Pulitzer Prize–winning syndicated columnist. His email address is georgewill@washpost.com.

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