By comparison, the federal government seized $4.5 billion worth of property that year, according to a report from the Institute for Justice.
How – and why – is the government taking so much private property from people?
Law enforcement uses a tool called asset forfeiture, which breaks down into two components. Criminal asset forfeiture allows government agencies to take property the government has proved to be involved in criminal activity. Civil asset forfeiture allows law enforcement to seize property they suspect was involved in criminal activity; no conviction is required for officials to take property under civil asset forfeiture laws.
The Institute for Justice’s report pointed out that 87 percent of all federal property seizures are civil, not criminal – meaning that most often, property is taken from people not convicted of a crime.
In addition to the federal government, the states also reap revenues from civil asset forfeiture laws of their own.
Since 2005, while federal law enforcement took in more than $404 million in Illinois, state and local law enforcement took $319 million from private citizens over the same time period.
Several states have passed laws to reform unfair asset forfeiture practices
Many states have taken steps to roll back this predatory practice.
New Mexico effectively ended civil asset forfeiture in 2015.
Nebraska ended the practice in 2016, also requiring a criminal conviction before property can be taken.
On Jan. 4, Gov. John Kasich signed civil asset forfeiture reform into law in Ohio.
Utah introduced a bill to reform civil asset forfeiture at the end of 2016.
A plan to dramatically reform civil asset forfeiture laws in Illinois was introduced Jan. 25. Among other changes, the legislation would only allow seizure of property that is connected to a crime for which the owner has been convicted. The bill also would set up a structure to provide for better data collection and sharing, allowing the public to know how asset forfeiture revenues are spent.
Civil asset forfeiture reverses the presumption of innocence and gives law enforcement incentives to take property
It’s no surprise civil asset forfeiture has moved swiftly through state legislatures across the country.
Common law establishes that a person is innocent until proven guilty – but civil asset forfeiture laws presume guilt, not innocence. After law enforcement takes a person’s property, the onus is on the individual property owner to prove his or her innocence – and the person has to post money just for the right to contest the forfeiture.
And because enforcement agencies get to keep or sell a majority of the property they seize for their own benefit, those agencies have huge incentive to seize even more property. Without access to information on how law enforcement spends the revenue from asset forfeiture, it’s impossible to understand the full scope of the problem or for the public to hold officials accountable. This system leaves the door open for abuse.
In 2009, police in Tenaha, Texas, a town with a population just over 1,000 residents, made national headlines for using asset forfeiture funds to buy a $500 popcorn machine, candy and $400 worth of catering.
The sad truth is that too often, other people’s property is viewed as a revenue stream for law enforcement under civil asset forfeiture.
The president of the Illinois Drug Enforcement Officers Association admitted in an interview with WBEZ Chicago that police view asset forfeiture as a funding source. He said: “I honestly believe that it’s human nature. There’s more of an incentive when you can buy a squad car with it than when you can’t.”
Illinois would be wise to follow the lead of New Mexico and other states that have embraced reforms to create a fairer system.