By Stefanie Klaves
A home improvement contractor, Vincent Costello, was cruising down Highway 17. He was on the way to flip a home in Florida that he had bought in foreclosure and was carrying $32,000 in cash. Before Vincent made it to his destination, he was stopped by a sheriff for a cracked windshield. The sheriff asked Vincent some questions, and while doing so, noticed a smell of marijuana. No drugs were found. Vincent was not charged with a crime. But, the police seized the full sum of $32,000. In an outrageous predicament, Vincent was not innocent until proven guilty; instead, Vincent was guilty until he could prove himself innocent.
Civil asset forfeiture allows the government to seize a person’s money, car, home, and other property if a police suspects that the assets are connected to criminal activity. As a reader, you might think: I don’t use illicit drugs or carry large wads of cash, so civil asset forfeiture can never be used against me. Wrong. Around 80% of U.S. currency in circulation today has tints of cocaine on it. If you use dollar bills, it is not farfetched to imagine the cash being seized because of drug residue.
And it’s not just large amounts of cash that police officers flag for forfeiture. On one occasion, the state seized a girl’s piggy bank with $98 of birthday money in it. The Institute for Justice’s Dick Carpenter explains that civil asset forfeiture is “happening to everyday people in every state across the country… This is not something isolated to drug kingpins and mafiosos.”
The most disturbing aspect of civil asset forfeiture is that people don’t have to be charged with a crime before their property is taken. In fact, one study found that “over 80% of people whose property is seized under civil law are never even charged with a crime.” When property is seized, people have to pay for a lawyer and prove their innocence to get the property back.
Unfortunately, Vincent Costello’s story is neither hypothetical nor an isolated incident. Vincent is a real person, and civil asset forfeiture is rampant. In Pennsylvania alone, the law enforcement made over $15 million through civil asset forfeiture between 2017 and 2018. And federal forfeiture revenue in 2014 was more than $5 billion.
Given the outrageous nature of civil asset forfeiture, it is no surprise that 84% of Americans are opposed to this government practice. From the ACLU to the Heritage Foundation to the CATO Institute, civil asset forfeiture reformers find supporters among the ranks of liberals, conservatives, and libertarians alike. In the age of intense political polarization and tribalism, civil asset forfeiture reform is a rare opportunity for cross-party collaboration.
Vincent Costello did eventually contest the cash seizure and accepted a deal in which the government gave him half his money back. But this was only after paying $9,000 in legal fees. Whether Costello was really involved in illicit practice or not is beside the point. Civil asset forfeiture is a problem because no American should be forced to forfeit their property without being charged with a crime.
As Congressman Jim Sensenbrenner put it in 2015, “Our Founders understood the virtues of limited government. The right to own property is enshrined in the Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution: ‘[No person shall] be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law. . .’ Current forfeiture provisions mock the spirit and meaning of that passage and create serious issues under several other Constitutional provisions.”
The argument in favor of civil asset forfeiture is that the tool is needed for police officers to fight and thwart real criminals, particularly drug criminals. Fighting crime and protecting communities are laudable and indispensable goals, but they should not trump constitutional provisions. After all, if the government put 100% of people in prison, the government would have a 100% success rate for capturing criminals. But the government cannot do that because its police powers are limited by the Constitution.
Without due process of law, the fight against crime becomes a danger to American liberties. Congressman Henry Hyde described civil asset forfeiture as an “unrelenting government assault on property rights, fueled by a dangerous and emotional vigilante mentality that sanctions shredding the U.S. Constitution into meaningless confetti.”
Let’s not allow the U.S. Constitution to degrade into meaningless confetti. It’s time to reform civil asset forfeiture and uphold due process of law.