The Road to Eliminating Civil Asset Forfeiture

The Road to Eliminating Civil Asset Forfeiture

The Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution says property shall not be taken without just compensation. The Fourteenth Amendment says property shall not be taken without due process of law.

With a Republican president and Republican control of both houses of Congress, believers in the Constitution were hopeful one of the greatest abuses of those Amendments, civil asset forfeiture, would end or at least be greatly curtailed.

In civil asset forfeiture cases, the owner does not need to be judged guilty of any crime. It is even possible for the government to prevail and keep any property, including money, by proving that someone other than the owner used the property to commit a crime.

And in order for the owner to get their property back, it’s an arduous process filled with a lot of bureaucratic paperwork and back and forth with the government, often where the victim must prove their innocence, despite the lack of a conviction much less a crime.

Last week, President Trump met with sheriffs from across the country. During their discussion, President Trump was asked about asset forfeiture and his position on it and the bills currently in Congress that would end or curtail asset forfeiture.

While we believe President Trump is misinformed on the issue, he actually encouraged the sheriffs to continue their practices because he wouldn’t want to stand in the way of the police taking “a huge stash of drugs.”

President Trump even told one local sheriff from Texas to “destroy” the career of a politician who is trying to overturn civil asset forfeiture laws on the books.

What President Trump perhaps doesn’t realize is that civil asset forfeiture is greatly misused and abused, and currently opposed by 84% of Americans. Yet, it is legally allowed in over half the states and even sanctioned by the federal government, which makes sure to get their slice of the seized assets through the Federal Equitable Sharing program.

And it violates the Constitution.

The assets they are selling and profiting from aren’t drugs either.

The government is taking cars and homes from families because a relative in the home was selling drugs, even if the owner was unaware.  In Michigan, a woman’s car was taken after her husband was caught soliciting a prostitute.  We don’t condone the crimes committed, but we don’t believe the rightful owners’ property should be taken and sold when they were completely innocent of any crime.

A real-life example:

Javier Gonzalez borrowed a car from his employer at a used car lot in Austin, TX, and drove to Brownsville to visit his dying aunt, who had helped raise him. He planned to make his last visit and make arrangements for her funeral. He had more than $10,000 in cash with him in order to provide for a funeral and burial.

Before Gonzalez made it to see his aunt, he was pulled over because the car’s front license plate was sitting on the dashboard rather than affixed to the bumper.

While required in Texas, most police do not pull over offenders, and if they do, they give a warning to fix the infraction.

When the officers found out about the cash, they handcuffed Gonzalez, interrogated him, and performed a more thorough search of the car.

They found no drugs. They found no weapons.

Police gave Gonzalez an affidavit telling him to sign away any legal claim to the cash or face money laundering charges and have his boss’ car seized as well.

His “crime” was driving without a license plate properly affixed. He missed the death of the woman who raised him. He could not pay for the burial of his aunt. And he had to fight for almost three years to recover his money.

And it turns out the local police department who took the money was using the millions they collected over the years for cars, casinos, and other personal expenses . . . not even real police work.

At the state level, civil asset forfeiture is currently legal in over half of the states but has faced more backlash recently, leading states like Ohio and Nebraska to make the unconstitutional policing tool illegal. A couple weeks ago, we reported that Texas wants to abolish the practice, but recent events will intensify that battle.

Rep. Justin Amash is currently working on legislation that would make civil asset forfeiture illegal at the federal level. America’s Liberty Committee looks forward to working with Congressman Amash on this important legislation, and we encourage President Trump and his advisors to read on on the issue by the time the final bill reaches his desk.

– John McCardell