The fight for property rights
The biggest threat to property rights in America today is the practice of civil asset forfeiture.
This practice allows law enforcement agents to seize property believed of being involved in a crime without charging the property holder with a crime. These seizures lead police departments to permanently seize property of the innocent by opening a law suit against the property itself – not against the property holder.
This structure works against the property owner in that a law suit of this nature does not guarantee the property owner the right to counsel or the presumption of innocence.
Much of the time, civil asset forfeiture works to seize large amounts of cash suspected to be involved in the drug trade. However, no physical evidence needs to be found to justify a seizure, and the presence of cash itself can meet the evidentiary burden to allow the state to keep the property permanently.
As if this were not alarming enough, the structure of most state laws give law enforcement the incentive to seize property they know is innocently held.
For example, in Tennessee, 100 percent of the funds from these forfeitures can be kept by the agencies collecting them. This meant an extra $12,973,137 in revenue for Tennessee law enforcement agencies was collected in 2012.
Unlike Tennessee, some states have issued heavy reforms. New Mexico has implemented laws requiring criminal conviction and transparency in reporting while allowing none of the collected funds to go to law enforcement. Reforms such as these help to remove the incentive for police to collect profits off of innocent citizens.
These state reforms can become obsolete with a program called equitable sharing. This occurs when state agencies skirt their stricter laws and call for the help of federal law enforcement agencies, such as the DEA.
When the DEA collects a citizen’s property, they are often operating under more relaxed federal laws to work towards keeping the property and cash. This teamwork between agencies allows for state agencies to keep a portion of the federal collections, maintaining incentives for all agencies involved.
Reforms are necessary on the state and federal level in order to protect the property of citizens across America. This can be done by requiring criminal conviction before the property can be transferred to the state, requiring that forfeited funds cannot be placed into the law enforcement agency budget. Which will close the equitable sharing loophole.