Civil forfeiture laws, which allow the government to seize assets like cars, homes, property, cash and just about anything else merely suspected by law enforcement of being used for criminal activities, are an affront to Americans’ Constitutional property rights. Senator Rand Paul (R-Ky.) recently unveiled a plan to reform them.
Paul’s legislative proposal, dubbed the FAIR (or the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration) Act, would take on a legal system that not only allows, but incentivizes, confiscation of private property from individuals who haven’t been charged or convicted of breaking any laws.
“The federal government has made it far too easy for government agencies to take and profit from the property of those who have not been convicted of a crime. The FAIR Act will ensure that government agencies no longer profit from taking the property of U.S. citizens without due process, while maintaining the ability of courts to order the surrender of proceeds of crime,” Paul said.
While convicting a person of a crime requires law enforcement to provide evidence that the individual is guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt,” the government has to prove only that property was likely to have been used in a crime in order to steal it from its rightful owner. Meanwhile, unlike in criminal proceedings, the property owners are considered guilty until proven innocent.
Getting property back from the government can mean a long, costly — and often unsuccessful — legal battle. And even though confiscating a car, property or cash from a person who the government has not linked directly to a crime does nothing to make the public safer, you can bet that law enforcement agencies will fight hard to hang on to what they have confiscated.
That’s because current civil forfeiture laws provide direct cash incentives to agencies in some States by allowing them to sell what they confiscate and reap the financial rewards. In States with better property protections for residents, law enforcement can get some help stealing stuff from innocent people by reaching out to Uncle Sam’s Justice Department.
Via The Institute for Justice:
Federal law provides a loophole called “equitable sharing” to law enforcement in states with good civil forfeiture laws. This program allows state law enforcement to turn seized assets over to the federal government, which forfeits the property under federal law. In turn, the feds give up to 80 percent of the forfeited property back to the state agency for its own use, even if state law would have required those proceeds to go into a general fund.
Paul’s civil forfeiture reform would de-incentivize confiscation of innocent Americans’ belongings by making it tougher for the government to make a case against an individual’s property. Furthermore, it would remove the Federal assist in most cases by requiring all State agencies to defer to State laws regarding confiscated property.
Another provision in Paul’s legislation would provide that the profits from all property that is legitimately confiscated by the Federal government by way of civil forfeiture be placed in the U.S. Treasury’s General Fund, not the Attorney General’s Asset Forfeiture Fund. The funding redirect is important because it creates a situation where there is no direct financial incentive for law enforcement to take property — consequently, making it more likely that property is taken only when legitimate public safety concerns exist.
The FAIR Act is the latest in a series of attempts the Kentucky Senator is making to reform the U.S. judicial system by challenging aspects of the Nation’s failed War on Drugs (which largely abetted the rise in civil forfeiture cases) and sentencing guidelines that make rehabilitation more difficult than it should be for some low-level offenders.