Civil Liberties

Model Bill Would Revoke the State's License to Steal

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Today the Institute for Justice and the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers unveiled "model state legislation" that abolishes the practice of civil asset forfeiture by requiring the government to convict people before taking property linked to their alleged crimes. The bill (PDF) cuts to the heart of the injustices associated with forfeiture laws that bizarrely accuse the property, rather than its owner, of wrongdoing. Even when states officially allow innocent owners to reclaim their property, the process is often so cumbersome and expensive that they surrender to state-sanctioned theft. Furthermore, states typically allow the law enforcement agencies that initiate a forfeiture to keep much or all of the proceeds for their budgets, giving police and prosecutors an incentive to target people based on the value of their property rather the seriousness of their crimes. The I.J./NACDL would do away with that practice as well.

Despite reforms prompted by numerous reports of outrageous forfeiture abuses, a 2010 I.J. study, Policing for Profit, gave only three states—Maine, North Dakota, and Vermont—a grade of B or better.  For a sense of how tenacious the resistance to reform has been, have a look at these three snapshots from Reason:

May 1990 (PDF): "United States v. One Assortment of 89 Firearms: Drug Warriors Are Using an Obscure Medieval Legal Doctrine to Sweep Aside Property Rights and Due Process," by Stefan B. Herpel

August/September 1993: "Ill-Gotten Gains: Police and Prosecutors Have Their Own Reasons to Oppose Forfeiture Law Reform," by Richard Miniter

February 2010: "The Forfeiture Racket: Police and Prosecutors Won't Give Up Their License to Steal," by Radley Balko

More on asset forfeiture here.