Asset Forfeiture

The FBI Hopes These Cute Puppies Will Distract You From Unconstitutional Civil Asset Forfeitures

Surrender the Fifth Amendment or the dog dies.

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Law enforcement officials have tried every trick to attempt to convince Americans to accept civil asset forfeiture, the controversial process that allows the police to take and keep the money and property of those who are suspected, though not convicted, of criminal activity. In particular, police and prosecutors often insist that they need the seized money and property to help fight the war on drugs.

Polls show that most Americans disapprove of these seizures when they understand what they actually are. Most Americans rightfully think that law enforcement should have to convict somebody of a crime before taking their stuff.

The FBI, faced with such disapproval, and hoping to protect its controversial methods, has now brought out the big guns: adorable puppies. Among other things, the FBI uses civil asset forfeiture to extricate pups when they raid dog-fighting operations. So the agency has put together a video and story purporting to show how important civil asset forfeiture is for the care and safety of such animals.

The FBI claims that historically it has had to euthanize the animals found in dog-fighting operations because the agency couldn't adopt them out until after the dogs' owners had been convicted. More recently, the FBI says, it has used civil asset forfeiture to get legal control over the dogs more quickly. The FBI explains:

"Typically, when you're dealing with cash or jewelry or some other inanimate object, it doesn't matter if you wait until the end of the criminal case to deal with it," said Mary Hollingsworth, an attorney with the Wildlife and Marine Resources Section in DOJ's Environment and Natural Resources Division (ENRD). "Dogs may start to decline physically and psychologically after about six months, even in the best shelter setting. They are not meant to be in cages with limited human interaction and exercise for long periods of time."

It's obvious that the intended message here is that civil asset forfeiture is a necessary tool for keeping these dogs alive. But there's an even better solution. The story notes that that these pups had foster families before they were fully adopted. If the FBI is unable to adequately care for the live creatures it seizes, fostering the dogs would seem to be a perfectly adequate fix while the dogs' owners are being prosecuted.

The federal code outlawing animal fighting allows for the dogs to be held by any "authorized person," and the FBI's own story notes that its agents immediately team with private partners for kenneling and animal care upon seizure of the dogs. So why not just foster all dogs that are seized in such cases? The dogs would be well cared for and properly socialized by loving homes. If it turns out that the dogs' owners are innocent, the dogs can be returned to them. No animals need to languish and die in cages.

Throwing live animals into the mix doesn't magically make it more ethically acceptable or constitutional to seize a person's property without first securing a conviction. There are ways to manage these pups without violating the Fifth Amendment. This video is not the justification for civil asset forfeiture that the agency is looking for.