Civil asset forfeiture laws allow law enforcement agencies to seize and forfeit property from everyday Americans upon a mere suspicion that the property is related to illegal activity. Unlike criminal forfeiture, which is a part of a criminal case and must involve a guilty plea or verdict, civil asset proceedings are conducted in civil court under different rules.
This means that cases are conducted without traditional constitutional protections afforded in a criminal case, and do not require a person to be charged, let alone convicted, of a crime for property to be permanently forfeited. The burden of proof is placed on the owner to demonstrate the innocence of their seized property through a long and expensive legal battle. While the intent of the policy may have been to target major drug distributors, it now disproportionately impacts poor and minority communities. After a review of forfeitures in Chicago, more specifically Cook County, Illinois, experts found that roughly 11,000 seizures from 2012 to 2017 were for amounts lower than $1,000. Additionally, nearly 1,500 were for amounts under $100. In many cases, the loss of property can have devastating effects on individuals, particularly the poor.
An astounding eighty percent of those from whom the federal government seized property through civil asset forfeiture were never charged with a crime. And the federal government has taken more than $2.5 billion through cash seizures since 2001. Such seizures hit a high water mark between 2013 and 2014 when amounts deposited into the Department of Justice’s Assets Forfeiture Fund (AFF) by federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies from forfeited assets increased from $2 billion to $4.5 billion—an increase of 125 percent.
Although little has been accomplished on the federal level, these numbers have prompted many states to push for reform. In October of 2015, Governor Rick Snyder of Michigan signed reforms that make the state’s civil asset reform procedures more transparent. In May of 2016, Maryland passed laws that require clearer reporting on how proceeds from forfeited property are used. And in January of 2017, Ohio passed civil asset forfeiture reforms designed to protect property owners better.