by Scott Bullock | May 7, 2012
Imagine having your cash, car, or home seized by police without ever being convicted of a crime. For Americans today, this nightmare is increasingly common.
The reason is civil forfeiture.
Civil forfeiture represents one of the worst violations of private property rights in our country. It is a legal fiction that permits law enforcement to charge property with a crime. That is why tomorrow I will be appearing in state court in Houston, presenting arguments in a constitutional challenge that could fundamentally alter Texas’s civil forfeiture laws and practices—which are downright awful.
My organization, the Institute for Justice, has teamed up with an innocent Texas property owner named Zaher El-Ali. Ali’s truck was seized by government officials through civil forfeiture despite the fact that he never did anything wrong and was never accused of any crime. We are challenging the perverse profit incentive system at the heart of Texas’s law, as well as the requirement that innocent owners like Ali bear the burden of proving their innocence rather than the government proving guilt in order to get their property back.
The name of Ali’s case is State of Texas v. One 2004 Chevrolet Silverado. Unlike criminal forfeiture, where property is taken away only after its owner has been found guilty in a court of law, with civil forfeiture owners need not be convicted of any crime to lose their homes, land, trucks, boats, or cash.
To make matters worse, law enforcement agencies in Texas and many other states get to keep the cash and other assets that they seize, giving them a direct financial incentive to abuse this power and the rights of property owners. In Texas, unlike in virtually every other state, forfeiture funds can even go to pay police and prosecutors’ salaries. This establishes a particularly distorted incentive structure under which the more property law enforcement officials seize, the nicer their automobiles, equipment and facilities—and the more stable their personal paychecks.
A 2010 report from the Institute for Justice, Forfeiting Justice, shows how Texas law enforcement agencies increasingly profit from the power of civil forfeiture. For instance, in 2007, for the average Texas law enforcement agency, forfeiture funds represented 14 percent of its budget and for the 10 agencies that take in the most forfeiture funds, forfeiture proceeds equal more than one-third (37 percent) of agency budgets.
Under state law, 90 percent of the proceeds from civil forfeitures go back to the law enforcement agencies that took the property. Innocent property owners have few legal protections. That’s why an earlier IJ report ranked Texas as one of the five worst states for civil forfeiture abuse.
The bottom line is that in America, people should not lose their property without first being convicted of a crime, and police and prosecutors should not financially gain from the taking of other people’s property.
Thankfully, brave citizens like Zaher El-Ali are standing up and fighting back.
Scott Bullock is a senior attorney with the Institute for Justice, the nation’s leading legal advocate for private property rights.