President Trump talked into supporting civil asset forfeiture

President Trump talked into supporting civil asset forfeiture

Luke Dalessandro, Politics Editor

In a consultation with country sheriffs based in a multitude of states across the nation to discuss law enforcement issues, President Trump levied a threat to “destroy the career” of a Texas legislator who proposed the possibility of reform on the practice of civil asset forfeiture. Trump, voicing his support for the practice at the assembly, proclaimed, “So what do you do? In other words, you have a huge stash of drugs. So in the old days, you take it. Now we’re criticized if we take it. So who gets it? What happens to them? Tell them to keep it?”

Only 17 states and Washington D.C require more than a preponderance of the evidence to facilitate civil asset forfeiture. And only 2, Nebraska and North Carolina, require proof beyond a reasonable doubt. Only one, Oregon, also requires a conviction.

Civil asset forfeiture, often known as civil judicial forfeiture or civil forfeiture, is the practice in which law enforcement officers have the legal ability to seize assets from people, often private landowners, based on suspicion of illegal activity without necessarily charging said person, often due to lack of evidence.

Civil asset forfeiture has developed into a highly controversial legal process, furthermore due to the procedure in which private property owners are required to go through to retrieve seized property, being obligated to prove that seized property was never at any point involved with illegal activity. The prerequisites for civil forfeiture accentuate a long established dichotomy relative to criminal procedure, in which requisition of private assets would require proof beyond a reasonable doubt, as opposed to civil procedure which civil asset forfeiture is intended to follow, in which only a majority of evidence is required to facilitate requisition of private assets. Put concisely, the precedent for criminal procedure rests on a presumption of innocence, whereas the practice of civil asset forfeiture relies on the presumption of guilt.

Historically, implementation of civil asset forfeiture in the U.S has risen to its highest frequencies in periods when substance prohibition has been most active. In the midst of the period of alcohol prohibition, civil forfeiture was used extensively to seize the vehicles, equipment, and cash from bootleggers, who smuggled alcohol during the era. When, in 1933, prohibition ended with the ratification of the 21st Amendment, which functioned to repeal the 18th Amendment, implementation and frequency of civil asset forfeiture use dropped extensively.

However, with the onset of the War on Drugs frequency of civil forfeiture rose substantially, being used with the official intent of utilizing civil forfeiture as a weapon against drug kingpins. Henceforth, the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984 permitted local and federal law enforcement agencies to split up seized property and cash, setting up a monetary incentive structure in which seizures of property have a profit incentive for agencies. The 1984 law also set up the equitable sharing program for seized property, which permitted local police enforcement agencies to share assets with federal agencies. The equitable sharing program has been a point of contention for the appearance of corruption and conflict of interest in enforcement agencies.

The frequency of civil forfeiture extends further perhaps due in part to the incentive structure created through both the equitable sharing program and permission for agencies to divert seized assets to funding. According to 2014 FBI crime reports, the value of seized private assets surpassed losses from burglaries, with losses from burglaries remaining under four billion, while assets seized through forfeiture exceeded five billion.

The value of assets seized through asset forfeiture exceeded that of burglary losses by over one billion based on the dollar value of seized assets in 2014.

However, this comparison does not account for assets given back to victims, whereas the net assets count does. However even the net assets value reached $4.5 billion in 2014, still higher than the burglary losses for that year. Between 1989 and 2010, an estimated value of $12.6 billion was seized by U.S attorneys in civil forfeiture cases. In 2014, the $4.5 billion represents over 35% of seized assets in the over 20 year period.