View Sidebar
Civil Forfeiture

Civil Forfeiture

January 29, 2019 9:09 pmComments are Disabled

Occasionally you encounter a public policy so obviously wrong, that it’s a wonder that it’s even allowed to happen in the first place. The moral clarity around such issues is striking. Often, one indication of its wrongness is that it galvanizes people who would otherwise disagree on most consequential political issues.

Civil forfeiture is one such policy. In an in-depth report out of South Carolina, that is just now being published piecemeal by the Greenville News, the practice which has been roundly criticized by prominent politicians and legal scholars on both sides of the aisle is presented in full relief, its devastating human consequences laid to bare.

It’s not just a question of justice and civil rights–it is, after all, an abomination of both. It’s also an indictment of our political system’s failure to eradicate a policy that only 7 percent of Americans approve of, including almost 0 percent of congress.

How is it possible that something that almost no one thinks is a good idea is such common practice that every year over $2.5 billion worth of cash is seized, without probable cause, from Americans not charged with a crime.
The reason it still exists, of course, is that police forces, including their pension funds, are increasingly dependent on assets seized in civil forfeiture cases. In some counties in Texas over 40% of police department budgets come from these assets.

Throw in the political third rail of challenging police practices, and the fact that most victims of civil forfeiture are too poor to sue, and you have a classic collective action problem of concentrated benefits and diffuse costs. The average American is unlikely to be affected by civil forfeiture, thus the cost of the practice is negligible for most on average. But the average police officer benefits highly from the practice, and therefore will, along with a powerful interest group, fight to keep it.

The only hope for overturning this wrongheaded, unjust practice is in the courts. Fortunately the Supreme Court heard oral arguments on the case in November, and there is not only bipartisan support for the plaintiff, but even notoriously conservative justice Clarence Thomas appears to oppose the practice.

If this isn’t overturned, the police will increasingly become what so many Americans already fear they are: criminals who are above the law.

Comments are closed