The American justice system is based around a simple yet powerful concept: “innocent until proven guilty.” The presumption of innocence ensures that citizens are given a fair shake. But in many states across the country, innocent Americans are being penalized for crimes they’ve never committed – sometimes at the expense of losing their cars and homes – without ever being charged with a crime, being heard by a judge, and without an opportunity to defend themselves.
How is this happening? Through a process called civil asset forfeiture.
What Is Civil Asset Forfeiture?
Through civil asset forfeiture, law enforcement can seize property from a citizen based only on their suspicion that the property has been involved in criminal activity – and without ever having to charge the property’s owner with a crime. In fact, the vast majority of individuals who have had their property seized by the federal government through civil asset forfeiture have never been charged with a crime.
So while our justice system is founded on the presumption of innocence, civil asset forfeiture assumes guilt relating to a person’s property, leaving the owner scrambling to prove innocence. The normal rules don’t apply – and it leads to injustice
Incentives to Increase Forfeitures
Making matters worse, and leading to the widespread abuse of the civil asset forfeiture, is that there are incentives for law enforcement to seize property. The proceeds of the sale of seized property are often funneled back to the police departments that took it in the first place. Improperly seized property can even be used to fund law enforcement operations and pay staff salaries. It’s an environment with potential for abuse — with innocent citizens caught in the middle.
And getting property back after it’s seized is far from easy. Property owners have to go through a complicated process to retrieve it, undergoing lengthy court proceedings and taking on expensive attorneys fees to “prove the innocence” of their property – with no guarantee it will ever be returned.
Fixing the Justice System
As national momentum for reforming forfeiture continues to build, Fix Forfeiture is working with groups from across the political spectrum.
Civil asset forfeiture is an area ripe for reform, and fixing it will be a significant step toward making the criminal justice system smarter, fairer, and more effective.