With criminal justice reform a cause championed on the right — from politicians such as Rand Paul, and states such as Texas — one of the many changes being zeroed in on is the governmental practice of civil asset forfeiture. Civil asset forfeiture occurs when authorities seize your property without trail due to suspicion that your property is involved in criminal activity.
It's 100% legal, and while sometimes an effective tool against drug traffickers, the practice is oftentimes abused, and earns the title "policing for profit." As such, senators such as Konni Burton of Texas are currently running bills that severely hamper the practice.
If you'd like a perfectly good example of just how abused the practice of civil asset forfeiture can be, George Will writes of one in the Washington Post.
The Sourovelises’ son, who lived at home, was arrested for selling a small amount of drugs away from home. Soon there was a knock on their door by police who said, “We’re here to take your house” and “You’re going to be living on the street” and “We do this every day.” The Sourovelises’ doors were locked with screws, and their utilities were cut off. They had paid off the mortgage on their $350,000 home, making it a tempting target for policing for profit.
And it's not just local and state authorities that get involved in the process. They often get a hand in doing this from the federal government itself.
Nationwide, proceeds from sales of seized property (homes, cars, etc.) go to the seizers. And under a federal program, state and local law enforcement can partner with federal authorities in forfeiture and reap up to 80 percent of the proceeds. This is called — more Orwellian newspeak — “equitable sharing.”
If you're feeling rather aghast that something so seemingly unconstitutional could be happening "every day," then brace yourself, because President-elect Donald Trump's pick for attorney general thinks this practice should not only continue, but it should do so unhampered.
As Roll Call writes, civil forfeiture "finds a champion" in Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions.
Consider the case of Russ Caswell, who testified at the recent Senate hearing. The government invoked civil forfeiture to take his family-owned motel, not because he did something wrong, but because some customers violated the law in the privacy of their own rooms. Caswell was forced to prove his own innocence to prevent the forfeiture of his business, which also happened to be his life-savings and retirement plan, all rolled into one.
Few are willing to go on record defending a practice that so blatantly disregards the fundamental principle of innocent until proven guilty — to say nothing of the right to private property.
Enter Sessions. Midway through the committee hearing, he declared that he was “very unhappy” with criticism of civil forfeiture, because in his view “taking and seizing and forfeiting, through a government judicial process, illegal gains from criminal enterprises is not wrong.” Apparently drawing a number from thin air, Sessions announced “95 percent” of forfeitures involve people who have “done nothing in their lives but sell dope.”
As Roll Call offhandedly comments, there is no proof that civil forfeiture correctly targets criminals that well, and there's not much reason to believe it does. Let's say, however, that Sessions' claim was accurate. If what the authorities in the Sourovelises case said were true, and this happens very frequently, then the five percent of people who aren't guilty is still a large enough number to warrant a change in the laws. Furthermore, even if the accuracy is that high, that's still a load of cases of seizure without trial.
One person to actually put limits on civil forfeiture was surprisingly Eric Holder, who made it to where local and state police could not use federal law to seize assets, unless a federal authority was directly involved. While it didn't stop the abuse, it at least put up a hurdle. These are practices that FreedomWorks' Jason Pye, who has been on the forefront of battling the practice of civil forfeiture, wishes to see continue.
"Holder took some initial steps toward fixing civil asset forfeiture laws," Pye told TheBlaze. "My hope is that Sessions will improve upon these laws. As a former prosecutor he should know that every American is innocent till proven guilty, under civil asset forfeiture, the presumption of innocence is thrown out the window. That's wrong. It guts due process."
With Trump holding up Sessions as his go to for attorney general, alarm should be resonating through many an American citizen as to the security of their civil liberties. As George Will says, "The Senate Judiciary Committee might want to discuss all this when considering the nominee to be the next attorney general, Alabama Sen. Jeff Sessions."