The Institute for Justice, which has fought the state on a number of fronts, including eminent domain abuse (the infamous Kelo v. New London case), economic liberty, and most recently political speech in the wake of the Citizens United ruling, is now taking aim at a lucrative revenue stream for law enforcement agencies nationwide, one that doesn’t require higher taxes or even a traffic ticket: asset forfeiture laws.
All it takes for someone to lose their car and everything in it, is to be pulled over by the cops with “probable cause” of wrongdoing. It could even be their house, if the cops suspect any sort of shenanigans such as drug sales taking place there. They don’t even have to find any evidence of a crime, and the owners need not be charged with one. The police can seize the property, sell it, and pocket the proceeds–and in most states, there is nothing the former owner can do about it.
What makes it especially difficult for owners to reclaim their property is that they’re not direct parties to the forfeiture proceedings. Technically, it’s the property that’s on trial, as the police allege that it was used in or connected to the commission of a crime. In order to get their property back, the owners have to prove they had nothing to do with the crime and was unaware that their property had been used in a crime. In other words, they must prove their own innocence. They’re almost better off being charged with an actual crime, since the state’s standard of proof to obtain conviction is higher.
The IJ has released a study of Federal and state asset forfeiture laws (pdf), and with precious few exceptions, none of them favors property owners. The laws create an enormous profit motive for law enforcement agencies, at the expense of property rights, with virtually no legal recourse.
As part of their campaign, which may include future litigation, the IJ has released a video that succinctly describes the problem: