Trump and Clinton voters alike think reforming the criminal justice system is a national priority, according to a new poll from the Charles Koch Institute.
When asked whether reforming the criminal justice system is a key priority facing our country, 81 percent of Trump voters and 83 percent of Clinton voters acknowledge the issue as a priority. When asked how important the issue of criminal justice, police and the courts is to them, 92 percent of Trump voters and 94 percent of Clinton voters responded that the issue is “important” to them. Sixty-eight and 67 percent of Trump and Clinton voters, respectively, said the issue is “very important” to them.
The degree to which Clinton and Trump voters expressed similar sentiments on the subject varied. For example, while 76 percent of Clinton supporters agreed with the statement “too many people are in prison for non-violent crimes,” just 52 percent of Trump supporters agreed.
But across the board, majorities of voters dislike the practice of civil asset forfeiture, which allows law enforcement to confiscate private property even if the owner has not been charged with a crime. One poll question explained the practice, then asked whether voters were aware it existed. Though less than half of respondents who voted for either candidate responded that they were aware of civil asset forfeiture, 48 percent of Trump voters and 60 percent of Clinton voters responded subsequently that they think the use of civil asset forfeiture should be decreased.
When later asked whether police should have the right to seize private assets of a suspect, even if that individual is never prosecuted, just 18 percent of respondents in total agreed.
Whether voters know it or not, asset forfeiture is used widely
By comparison, the federal government seized $4.5 billion worth of property that year, according to a report from the Institute for Justice.
Asset forfeiture breaks down into two components: civil and criminal. Criminal asset forfeiture allows government agencies to take property the government has proved was involved in criminal activity. Civil asset forfeiture allows law enforcement agents 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 from 1997 to 2013, 87 percent of all federal property seizures were civil, not criminal – meaning that most often, property is taken from people who have not been convicted of a crime.
In addition to the federal government, states also reap revenues from civil asset forfeiture laws of their own.
Since 2005, federal law enforcement took in more than $404 million in Illinois, and state and local law enforcement took $319 million from private citizens over the same time period.
Common law deems a person 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 will often have to to post money just for the right to contest the forfeiture.
And because enforcement agencies get to keep or sell for their own benefit a majority of the property they seize, those agencies have a huge incentive to take 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 worth nearly $200, and $400 worth of catering.
States are working to scale back civil asset forfeiture
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.
On May 9, Iowa Gov. Terry Branstad signed a bill requiring a criminal conviction for civil asset forfeiture relating to property worth less than $5,000.