The libertarian public interest law firm Institute for Justice (IJ) has put out a tremendous new report on abusive civil asset forfeiture practices in the United States called "Policing for Profit." As the report notes, federal and state asset forfeiture laws often create perverse incentives for abuse by making civil forfeiture "relatively easy for the government and hard for property owners to fight."
Scott Bullock, a co-author of the report, and Vanita Gupta, from the American Civil Liberties Union, have co-authored an excellent run-down on the substance of the report for the Huffington Post, including several egregious examples of forfeiture abuse, noting that:
The civil forfeiture laws were supposed to help fight the war on drugs, by making sure that crime wouldn't pay. But this broken system also sweeps innocent property owners into its net, seizing money based on a premise of drug activity with no hard evidence and no requirement to prove anything to a judge. It's no surprise that asset forfeiture practices disproportionately impact low-income, hard-working African-American or Hispanic people who the police decide look suspicious and who have little means to challenge their plight.
The report includes a state-by-state report card on asset forfeiture laws, and gives Colorado's laws a middling grade of C. This might sound disappointingly low, but many other states' asset forfeiture laws are so awful, and abuse of those laws so out of control, that a grade of C actually puts Colorado in the top ten states for most liberty-friendly forfeiture laws. And indeed, Colorado's laws are a far sight better than they were just eight years ago.
Asset forfeiture laws in Colorado prior to 2002 were spawned out of the worst excesses of the war on drugs in the 1980s and '90s and turned the best practices of American justice upside down. People's cars, cash, and other property could be seized without conviction, or even charges being filed and the burden of proof to retrieve unjustly taken property was dumped onto the property owner. It was a disaster for due process.
In 2002, Colorado lawmakers passed, and then governor Bill Owens signed, a law that included a requirement that someone actually be convicted of a crime before their property is seized by government (with some sensible exceptions such as when a person flees the jurisdiction) and removed some of the direct financial incentives for police agencies to go after citizens' assets by requiring that the profits from forfeiture proceedings be spent under the supervision of responsible officials, such as county commissioners, rather than spent at the whim of whatever agency seized the property.
Support for these reforms was both overwhelming and bi-partisan. The House vote was 51-11 and the Senate vote was 23-10. The bill's sponsors included then Rep. Shawn Mitchell (now Senator Mitchell), a conservative Republican, and then Sen. Bill Thiebaut, a liberal Democrat.
At the time a broad coalition including the Independence Institute, the ACLU of Colorado, the Colorado Union of Taxpayers and the Colorado Criminal Justice Reform Coalition (CCJRC), all came together in support of reforming civil asset forfeiture.
The bill, HB 1404, was an excellent example of both Democrat and Republican lawmakers, and a sometimes disparate band of civil libertarians, property rights advocates and free market proponents all coming together in agreement that there are indeed limits on the state's power over its citizens.
Hopefully, the IJ report will help drive some much needed reform both in other states, and at the federal level. In the meantime, there is still more work to be done concerning Colorado's participation in highly-flawed federal asset forfeiture programs. As an example, check out my 2009 piece on the Colorado National Guard participating in civilian drug-policing missions in return for a share of federal asset forfeiture booty.