Opinion: Civil Asset Forfeiture Laws Require Revision

Updated: Oct 18, 2021

Ever since the dawn of our country, systemic inequality has plagued the United States. While conspicuous legislation such as the Jim Crow laws that separated Black citizens in nearly every facet has faded away, in our modern society, these legislations have been replaced by more subtle laws that unfairly target the minority population. An example of this are the Civil Asset Forfeiture Laws.

What are Civil Asset Forfeiture Laws?

With the passing of the Drug Abuse and Prevention Acts and Control Act in 1970, the Civil Asset Forfeiture Laws were molded into their modern form. Added on by both the Psychotropic Substances Act in 1978 and the Comprehensive Crime Control Act in 1984, it gave Civil Forfeiture laws its full power. These laws are a legal tool that allows law enforcement to seize property that they contend has been involved in certain criminal activity. Despite the consequences of such an action, the requirements to in fact seize property are minimal. For example, law enforcement are allowed to strip property away from the owner even if they have not been convicted of a crime. As a result, thousands of innocent people have been deprived of their wealth with no justice in return.

The revenue generated from property seizures is sent to the federal government, with around 50-100 percent going back to local police departments, thus incentivizing law enforcement to continue implementing these harsh laws. While the national government has had a reputation for tightening forfeiture measures, many states have reversed course. Recently, Arizona, Iowa, and Virginia have passed laws changing the right to seize property from a burden of proof to clear and convincing evidence. Various other states have also placed increased restrictions on these laws while North Carolina, New Mexico, and Nebraska have abolished civil forfeiture entirely.

Although states have tightened regulations on forfeiture laws, federal laws can overrule on them. Through equitable sharing, a process that allows for state and federal law enforcement to join together to seize property, the possessions seized would go underneath federal forfeiture law rather than the possibly more strict state law.

The Effects of Civil Forfeiture Laws

Since the start of the War on Drugs in 1971 that has left millions incarcerated, law enforcement has used forfeiture laws to take away billions of dollars from American citizens. In 2014 alone, revenue from civil forfeiture was 4.6 billion — a massive spike from the 93.7 million in 1986.

Many of the victims of forfeiture are innocent. In cases where civil forfeiture is applied, up to 80% percent of people who have their assets seized are never charged with a crime. According to an analysis by the Southern Poverty Law Center, indicators of criminal activity can be as small as and can include “trash on the floor of a vehicle, abundant energy drinks or air fresheners hanging from rearview mirrors.” Even though the use of forfeiture laws may seem good in theory, cash-hungry enforcement agencies will always cause it to break down into shambles.

Perhaps most importantly, racial profiling in forfeiture cases is extremely prevalent. An investigation by the Orlando Sentinel found that 9 out of 10 motorists that were stopped and stripped of their property in Volusia County, Florida were either Hispanic or Black. In Philadelphia, Black citizens only make up 44 percent of the population but 63 percent of house seizures and 71 percent of cash forfeitures that were unaccompanied by a conviction. With the net worth of Hispanic and African Americans far lower due to systemic inequality over the years, a swell in racial targeting where forfeiture laws are applied will continue to prolong that data.

Forfeiture Laws Need Reevaluation

Despite the lofty goals that forfeiture laws were meant to fill, they have been an immense disappointment. Meant as a solution for the war on drugs, it has failed in stopping the drug epidemic as well as, in general applications of everyday crime. Researchers studying the effects of forfeiture laws have discovered that the effects it has on crime clearances are “as small as to be immaterial.” A 2017 report by the Department of Justice Office found that in 56 percent of the forfeiture cases that it examined that there was “no discernible connection between the seizure and the advancement of law enforcement efforts.”

While forfeiture laws have had some positive effects, they have also led to advancing racial disparities and for billions of dollars to be unfairly stripped from the hands of American citizens.

In order to make forfeiture laws effective in the future, the property should only be seized by law enforcement once it has been proven that the individual or group has actually committed a crime, instead of going off of reasonable doubt. Once the cash has been seized, the money should go to funds that delve into social works rather than law enforcement that promotes and reinforces an endless cycle of violence and crime. Reinvesting the money into impoverished areas will not only uplift minority groups but will help end the inherent bias that forfeiture laws have on people of color.

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