Jerrie Brathwaite was not in her car when Washington, D.C. police seized it in January 2012. She had lent her 2000 Nissan Maxima to a friend, and that friend was pulled over, searched, and found to be in possession of drugs. A year later, Braithwaite—who has never been charged with a crime—still doesn’t have her car back, and no one from the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) will return her calls. Under civil forfeiture, police can seize property from people who are never convicted—much less charged with—a crime. Unlike criminal forfeiture, where the government must prove property was used in the commission of crime, civil forfeiture law presumes an owner’s guilt.

Brathwaite's situation—and the MPD's behavior—are not uncommon, reports John Ross. Civil forfeiture is a national problem. Law enforcement agencies seize millions of dollars worth of property each year with little or no due process for owners. In all but six states property owners are considered guilty until proven innocent. State law typically allows law enforcement to keep most or all of the proceeds from forfeiture—an enormous incentive to police for profit.