In the topsy-turvy world of the Justice Kavanaugh confirmation hearings, we were told that a person should be considered guilty until proven innocent, and that we must always believe accusers even when their allegations are unverifiable, remote, and arise under suspect circumstances. For conservatives, the hearings were a reminder of why the presumption of innocence is a bedrock American principle, and why the Founders guaranteed that citizens would not be punished unless they had been convicted of a crime under a fair and impartial process.
But long after the Kavanaugh hearings have faded from the spotlight, another recent legal invention known as civil forfeiture will continue to turn American principles of presumed innocence and due process on their head. Unlike criminal forfeiture, in which the state seizes property of someone convicted of a crime, civil forfeiture is based on the tortured legal fiction that property can be “guilty” of being connected to a crime and that civil proceedings can therefore be brought against the property itself instead of its owner. Cars, cash, guns, and even houses are routinely seized. Rather than being innocent until proven guilty, property owners often have a heavy burden to prove that their property was not connected to criminal activity and can be punished by having the property forfeited — even if they have not even been charged with, much less convicted of a crime. The proceedings usually have minimal judicial oversight and no real due-process protections.
To make matters worse, law-enforcement agencies get to keep the property they seize, which creates a perverse incentive for agencies to abuse the process. Not surprisingly, abuses have been systemic and well documented. For example, the sheriff’s department in Desoto County, Miss., agreed to return a 2006 Chevy Trailblazer owned by the mother of a criminal defendant, but only if the department was paid $1,650. It is common for parents to have their property seized for the alleged criminal activity of their children, even if the parents are completely unaware of the alleged crime. In many cases, the parents enter into an agreement to let the agencies keep all or some of their property. Further complicating this pattern is the fact that often the seized property is worth less than it would cost in legal fees to contest the forfeiture. All of this leads critics to view many forfeiture proceedings as little more than a shakedown. This system also allows law-enforcement agencies to fund themselves, circumventing the legislative appropriations process.
At a bare minimum, agencies should have to publicly report the property they seize, and how they spend the proceeds, to prevent abuse and allow the public to ensure that forfeiture laws are being properly applied. However, even this modicum of reform is often met with opposition from law-enforcement agencies that have become an interest group in the debate over forfeiture laws.
Despite the protests of law-enforcement agencies, initial reforms have already shown the need for transparency and further protections. Mississippi recently passed a law requiring the Mississippi Bureau of Narcotics (MBN) to maintain a website listing all property that is seized by it and other law-enforcement agencies. The website was launched on July 2, 2018, and immediately revealed a widespread problem. MBN and many other agencies were routinely pursuing forfeiture of property under a system known as administrative forfeiture, which allowed the agencies to forfeit the property without filing a petition in court. In many instances, the only thing the agency was required to do was provide a description of the property on a website for 30 days. The problem was that the law allowing for administrative forfeiture had been repealed on July 1, 2018, the day before MBN launched the website.
The Mississippi Justice Institute, a constitutional-litigation center, sent a letter to MBN informing the agency that it was violating the law. Nine days later, the agency, to its credit, sent letters to multiple property owners informing them that MBN was returning this seized property, totaling over $100,000 in cash along with other items.
While it is reassuring that the agency followed the law once informed of the change, there is every reason to believe that the improper forfeitures would have continued indefinitely absent the transparency that allowed an outside group to notice them. Even more disturbing is that, when alerted to the change in the law, MBN still had time to file petitions in court to pursue forfeiture of the property under regular civil forfeiture laws. That the agency chose not to may indicate that it knew the forfeitures would never hold up in court.
Law-enforcement agencies are entrusted with enormous responsibility. Every effort should be made to ensure there is not even an appearance of self-interest when those agencies enforce the law. Civil forfeiture clearly jeopardizes that independence, as well as basic American principles of fairness and justice. While further reform is needed, forfeiture transparency is a basic minimum that should be established in every state.