Civil Forfeiture

IJ Battles to Stop the Government from Taking Property from People Never Charged with a Crime

The Institute for Justice aims to curtail, and ultimately, abolish civil forfeiture, one of the gravest abuses of power in the country today. Unlike criminal forfeiture, which takes property from convicted criminals, under civil forfeiture, property owners do not have to be convicted of a crime, or even charged with one, to permanently lose their cash, cars, businesses or even their homes.

  • IJ recently released the second edition for our groundbreaking survey, Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture, which analyzed civil forfeiture laws in all 50 states and relating to the federal government. The report graded the states on how well they protect property owners: Only seven states and the District of Columbia received a “B” or better.
  • By the end of 2015, we secured a partial settlement of our class-action lawsuit against Philadelphia’s forfeiture machine, challenged unjust seizures by the DEA and IRS, launched a petition effort to regain cash taken through structuring laws and sued the city of Albuquerque for defying New Mexico’s landmark abolition of civil forfeiture.
  • We have forced the IRS to return cash it unjustly seized from a grocery store owner in Michigan, a restaurant owner in Iowa, a distribution company on Long Island, N.Y. and a convenience store owner in North Carolina. Our litigation also saved a Massachusetts motel from forfeiture and shined a light on law enforcement slush funds in Georgia.
  • Our fight against civil forfeiture has been covered by The New York Times, The New Yorker, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver.

Americans threatened with civil forfeiture face an appalling lack of due process that treats property owners worse than criminals:

Profit Incentive: In 43 states, police and prosecutors can keep anywhere from half to all of the proceeds they take in from civil forfeiture—a clear incentive to police for profit.

Equitable Sharing: Under a federal program called “equitable sharing,” local and state law enforcement can bypass state laws that limit civil forfeiture. By collaborating with a federal agency, they can move to forfeit property under federal law and  take up to 80 percent of what the property is worth. Granting law enforcement a direct financial stake in forfeiture encourages profiteering and not the pursuit of justice.

Burden of Proof:  Nearly all states and the federal government require far less evidence than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” standard for criminal convictions.

Guilty Until Proven Innocent: While many civil forfeiture laws do have a process for innocent owners to reclaim their property, all too often the burden of proof is on the owner—not the government. Therefore, under civil forfeiture, property owners have to prove their innocence and show that they were not aware of any criminal activity.

To roll back civil forfeiture, IJ has filed multiple lawsuits, written several publications scrutinizing the practice and led bipartisan efforts to enact legislative reforms. Through our efforts, we are determined to beat back civil forfeiture both in the court of law and court of public opinion.

 

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