A number of top progressive and conservative groups are banding together for a new campaign dedicated to reforming civil asset forfeiture, a controversial practice that allows law enforcement to seize a person's property -- including cash, cars, jewelry and houses -- without obtaining a conviction or even charging the owner with a crime. In most states, to reclaim seized property, owners must prove it is not connected to criminal activity, effectively inverting the American legal principle that suspects are innocent until proven guilty.
Fix Forfeiture, a 501(c)(4) organization that officially launched Tuesday at an event in the Pennsylvania Capitol, plans to push for a significant overhaul of these laws. It has rounded up a bipartisan coalition that include progressive organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and the Center for American Progress, as well as conservative ones like Americans for Tax Reform and FreedomWorks. The nonprofit will coordinate these varying voices -- all of which have campaigned separately on the issue of civil asset forfeiture -- as it lobbies for reform at both the state and federal levels.
"Asset forfeiture can be a critical tool for law enforcement to combat criminal activity," said Holly Harris, Fix Forfeiture's senior project director. "But, it's also a tool that can be abused, entangling innocent property owners with the costly and often bizarre task of having to prove their property 'innocent' of criminal activity. And when the nation's most well-respected conservative and progressive voices agree that a system is broken, it is time to get to work on a solution."
Civil asset forfeiture has drawn increasing bipartisan criticism following a number of reports that have pointed to widespread use and abuse of the tool by both local law enforcement officers and federal agents. Critics have suggested many of these agencies have taken advantage of weak legal protections for citizens and laws that channel proceeds directly back to their coffers, which they say has led to the creation of a perversely incentivized system of policing for profit. Many advocates of civil asset forfeiture reform have suggested that this dynamic effectively serves as a feedback loop, leading some departments to increasingly prioritize policing that will result in more seizures, and therefore more funds, over tactics focused on public safety.
A 2014 report in The Washington Post spoke to the particular issue of cash seizures, a popular form of civil forfeiture due to the fact that the mere presence of cash is often enough for an officer to decide he or she has "probable cause" to make a seizure. The Post found that one large federal program had led authorities to make nearly 62,000 cash seizures since 2001, all without search warrants or indictments. The total value of these seizures was more than $2.5 billion.
While supporters of civil asset forfeiture in law enforcement regularly say the process is needed to take down drug traffickers who may be carrying large sums of cash or other valuable property that they can't definitively connect to criminal activity, other reports and individual horror stories suggest officers are regularly seizing much smaller items or sums of money -- sometimes just hundreds of dollars. Critics have also claimed civil asset forfeiture may reinforce biases in policing, leading officers to target poorer, often minority individuals who are less likely to be able to afford costly and time-consuming legal battles to prove their seized property is not, in fact, related to criminal activity.
In a press release, Fix Forfeiture laid out its cornerstones for reforming civil asset forfeiture policies around the nation:
- Ensuring that no individual can have property forfeited without first being convicted of a crime.
- Addressing conflicts of interest created when the government agency responsible for an asset forfeiture retains those assets.
- Adding due process protections for the individual involved in an asset forfeiture.
- Establishing reporting requirements for government agencies that seize property.
- Exempting certain property from civil asset forfeiture laws that would create undue hardships for the property owner, such as a homestead or a vehicle.
Fix Forfeiture will begin its efforts in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio, three states with year-round legislative sessions. Civil asset forfeiture reform legislation has already been introduced in Michigan and Pennsylvania, and Harris told The Huffington Post that she's seen large-scale bipartisan support for these proposals.
For a state-by-state look at civil asset forfeiture laws and how this campaign for reform might change the process where you live, see this report from the Institute for Justice, a libertarian group that focuses on civil liberties.
A number of states have already taken up civil asset forfeiture reform this year. While the push has been successful in states like New Mexico and Montana, it has been met with resistance from law enforcement groups who argue that raising the standard of proof for forfeitures, lowering profit incentives for police departments and other changes would hurt their ability to fight the drug trade. In Maryland, for example, Gov. Larry Hogan (R) vetoed a civil asset forfeiture reform bill in May, citing pressure from police groups who claimed the legislation would make it harder for them to take heroin off the streets.
In an interview with The Huffington Post, Harris said she hopes these groups will work with Fix Forfeiture as it begins a new campaign for reform.
"Our organization has great respect for law enforcement and it's our hope that we can bring them to the table on these reform efforts," she said. "I think at the end of the day the goal is the same. Law enforcement wants to focus on the bad actors and that's what we want. There's always a resistance to change when something has been done the same for years. But once you hear the stories of abuse, there's really no defense to it. What is happening right now, in my opinion and certainly in the opinion of my organization, it flies in the face of everything that our criminal justice system is supposed to stand for."