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.

  • davidmpark

    Please keep working for restoration of our rights.

    And, if possible (I know you’re all busy), help us get back more rights of free enterprise please.

  • ekimatuan

    cboyack LibertasUtah Violates 14th Amend: nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law

  • graff7

    cboyack LibertasUtah This is simple raw abuse waiting to happen. Shame on us for allowing it.

  • MichaelStewart1

    Civil forfeiture is not the only bad law on Utah’s books. It is time for the people to wake up in this state and realize that there are other very bad laws that violate our civil rights. The law that allows police and government officials to be protected by “governmental immunity” needs to be repealed. All of the officials that are elected or those who are hired by the city and county corporations should be held accountable for any violation of  immoral or illegal behaviors they commit and to be dealt with just as it would be for you and me. They should not be able to lie, commit perjury, commit libel or slander against anyone without suffering the consequences of their actions.

    It is time for everyone to take a look inside and do something that will stop the madness. Other wise  it will be just like Ferguson, MO.. just like Nazi Germany. Wake up and educate your selves to what is happening in this country. Get up and get involved. If you really love your country then take action. If you respect the Constitution and the Bill of Rights, don’t let those in power subvert their real meaning. If you haven’t read them in a while, read them again. It was  just as meaningful for the time it was written and still applies today.

  • Charb

    Here’s a news clip with some interesting visuals of civil forfeiture:

  • Pingback: Over $3 million in seized property kept by police agencies in Utah | Libertas Institute | Advancing the cause of liberty in Utah()

  • Intellius

    What should someone do if they are randomly stopped by a law enforcement official and asked if they have any money?