Imagine being pulled over on the highway for a minor traffic violation. The next thing you know the police officer that stopped you asks you if you have any cash or other valuables in your vehicle and begins searching your car. The officer finds some cash or something else valuable and informs you they are taking your property because they think it was involved in criminal activity. Your property is taken but there is no judge or courtroom where you can plead your property's "innocence."
The only option available to fighting the seizure of your property is a complex paperwork trail, a battle where the odds of getting your property back are severely stacked against you and hiring a specialized attorney to help you might cost far more than the value of the property taken from you. Most seized property is then sold and some proportion of the profits from its sale are kept by the law enforcement agencies that made the seizure.
In many states this scenario is completely legal and it happens all the time. All of this happens on a regular basis across the country thanks to civil asset forfeiture laws. Low income people are believed to be disproportionately impacted by law enforcement taking advantage of these laws because they are least likely to have the means to fight a property seizure. African Americans and other communities of color are also believed to be disproportionately impacted in part because these populations are already disproportionately stopped by law enforcement.
In polling conducted by Drug Policy Action in the states of Florida and Utah on March 7th and 8th, an average of 71 percent of registered voters had never heard of civil asset forfeiture laws. After hearing a description of these laws, however, more than 80 percent of registered voters in both states taking property without a conviction. Support for reform was overwhelming regardless of party affiliation, age, gender or race. An overwhelming majority of polled voters from both political parties also opposed the idea that police should be able to keep the profits from the property they seize.
The Institute for Justice has long documented the growing reliance by law enforcement on the use of civil asset forfeiture to supplement their budgets at the expense of due process and property rights. Civil asset forfeitures pull in hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of property every year for the law enforcement agencies that make the property seizures. However, little is known about the victims of these seizures and the circumstances that might explain why victims are stopped by police in the first place.
In the above mentioned poll, Drug Policy Action asked voters in Florida and Utah if a police officer had ever taken property from them or someone they knew without being charged with a crime. Roughly 1 out of 12 surveyed voters reported having this experience or knowing someone who did, and most of these experiences happened during a traffic stop.
Poll respondents who self-reported as a person of color reported having this experience or knowing someone who did at a greater rate than white respondents. In Florida, a whopping 23% of respondents who reported having this experience or knowing someone who did were Hispanic, and 71% of Hispanic respondents reported that the experience happened during a traffic stop.
Luckily there is growing momentum behind reforming civil asset forfeiture laws in state houses across the country. In Florida the legislature recently sent a reform bill to Florida Gov. Rick Scott's desk for his signature. Lawmakers in California, Alaska, Hawaii, Ohio, Nebraska, Maryland and elsewhere are considering bills that reform civil asset forfeiture laws. Last year, New Mexico passed a sweeping bill that gives the state some of the strongest protections against wrongful seizures in the country.
The momentum behind reforming civil asset forfeiture laws at the state level hasn't quite taken root in Washington, however. Federal civil asset forfeiture laws are also in dire need of reform. Hard won state-level reforms must be protected. Congress has a duty to protect the people from the harm these laws cause and address the perverse incentives that perpetuate the property seizures.
Civil asset forfeiture reform also deserves to be a campaign issue. In fact, 66 percent of registered voters in both states polled by Drug Policy Action said they would be more likely to support a candidate for president who took a position in favor of requiring a criminal conviction before property can be seized.
Voters clearly oppose the exploitation of civil asset forfeiture laws by law enforcement. It's time for lawmakers on Capitol Hill and candidates running for our nation's highest office to address this issue.
Grant Smith is the deputy director of national affairs with Drug Policy Action.