Property Rights

Policing for Justice, or Profit?

Throughout the country, police officers are able to seize a person’s property without that person being charged with—let alone convicted of—a crime. The policy giving legal sanction to this action is known as civil asset forfeiture, one of worst by-products of the so-called “war on drugs.”

Civil asset forfeiture has received modest media attention over the years, and was thrust into the spotlight once more by a lengthy investigative piece by The Washington Post titled “Stop and Seize.” This article surveys to what extent this legal strategy has been used to confiscate a citizen’s property since 9/11, finding that officers charged with upholding the law (and presumably protecting people and their property) have seized, without a warrant, $2.5 billion since that time from innocent individuals.

Concurrently released with the Post article is a new report on civil asset forfeiture by the Institute for Justice, titled “Bad Apples or Bad Laws?” “The study concludes that civil forfeiture abuse isn’t a problem of just a few ‘bad apple’ police officers or rogue prosecutors, but rather bad laws that encourage bad behavior,” said Scott Bullock, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice. “Civil forfeiture creates a real and perverse incentive for law enforcement to pursue profits instead of justice.”

Echoing his colleague, the Institute for Justice’s president, Chip Mellor, commented that “Civil forfeiture is an affront to fundamental American principles of private property rights and due process.” Is he right?

Consider what happened with civil asset forfeiture law in Utah last year. The Attorney General’s office, then under the leadership of John Swallow, succeeded in deceptively getting the legislature to pass (and the Governor to sign) a bill that undermined key protections for property owners, thus facilitating law enforcement’s ability to seize and profit from property.

Last December, Libertas Institute released a policy analysis highlighting the changes that had been made. The Washington Post called the changes “unconscionable.” The Institute for Justice, writing in Forbes, said it was a “stealth attack on due process and property rights.” They’re both right.

Fortunately, model legislation we proposed to roll back the changes passed the legislature unanimously, and was signed into law by the Governor, restoring the private property rights protections that the Attorney General’s office had undermined the previous year.

Ultimately, we propose abolishing civil asset forfeiture completely; no persons’ property should be confiscated without due process and involvement in criminal activity. That any innocent person should have their property seized—and be unable to reclaim it without having to pay exorbitant attorneys fees, often amounting to more than the value of the seized property—should be concerning to all Americans. That it is done by the very government agents charged with upholding the law and protecting our persons and property is a violation of justice and a systemic problem.

With the unanimous vote in favor of reform this year, we expect to see future proposals looking to curtail or eliminate civil asset forfeiture in Utah.