The Hill Publishes Bushnell’s Op-Ed on Civil Asset Forfeiture

June 24, 2015


Repeal the Forfeiture Laws: Seize the Day, not our Property

By AC Bushnell

Should a U.S. citizen be subjected to having his money or property seized without ever being charged with a crime, let alone convicted of one? The answer is a resounding no!

Yet this happens every day in America. Under our current civil forfeiture laws, police and law enforcement agencies can take property with no trial, little due process, and sometimes, no warning.

Take, for example, the recent case of a 35-year old man who was driving in Idaho when state police stopped him and asked for permission to search his car. When he refused, they brought in a drug-sniffing dog which they said alerted to the presence of drugs. That was all the evidence they needed to search his car. Although they didn’t find any drugs, they did find $4,200 in cash, which he had set aside to pay for his divorce lawyer. The police not only seized his money, but took his backpack and a cell phone.

He spent 14 months urging the state police to return his property, with no result. They finally returned his phone and backpack—but not the money. It turned out that they had “federalized” the seized money and sent it to the Department of Justice as part of the Equitable Sharing Program.

At this point, the DKT Liberty Project stepped in to pay his attorneys fees and enable an innocent individual–who normally would have had no chance to get his money back–to further pursue his case.

This case is not unique. Thousands of Americans are stopped and searched by police for minor traffic violations in what has been called “policing for profit.” This has often led to a search for drugs and seizure of anything valuable.  Because civil forfeiture occurs in civil court—rather than criminal—it is up to the owner to pay for an attorney and prove his innocence. This travesty of justice turns the rule of law on its head.

How are police able to get away with this? They have a perverse incentive to seize money through the Department of Justice’s Equitable Sharing Program. The DOJ’s program allows state law enforcement officials to easily “federalize” the money. The case is then prosecuted by a U.S. Attorney. The DOJ keeps 20 percent of the forfeiture proceeds and sends 80 percent back to the local police.

If state law mandates that seized money must go toward education or other social programs—as some do—the Equitable Sharing Program short circuits state law and requires that the money must be returned to the local police department. Thus, the more the police take, the more they get.

Many—if not most—Americans cannot afford lawyers to try to get their property back. Further, the federal forfeiture laws prevent citizens from using a public defender to represent them.

Nonprofit groups, like ours and others, can only assist a small fraction of the thousands of innocent Americans who go through the nightmare of civil forfeiture.  Police have been turned into robbers on the highway. This is not how America is supposed to be.

As grim as this situation is, there is an answer to this problem: change the forfeiture laws.

Although former Attorney General Eric Holder implemented some forfeiture policy changes, they do not go nearly far enough, and can be overturned in an instant by current Attorney General Loretta Lynch.

Right now, Congress is considering legislation to reform federal forfeiture statutes. Given the level of abuse, this is the only way to fix this injustice. This is the moment for Congress to pass real reform.

The Founders of our country would be appalled at the ease with which our citizens can have their property seized. Millions of Americans are outraged at forfeiture injustice. Congress must act, and act now. The forfeiture laws must be changed: let’s seize the day, and not let the government seize our personal property.