POLITICS
08/28/2015 01:39 pm ET Updated Aug 28, 2015

Most Americans Have No Idea How Easy It Is For Police To Take Your Money

Thanks to civil asset forfeiture, it's really, really easy.

A new poll shows that the overwhelming majority of Americans aren't familiar with civil asset forfeiture, a controversial law enforcement practice that allows officers to seize a person's property -- including cash, cars, jewelry and houses -- without obtaining a conviction or even charging the owner with a crime.

The HuffPost/YouGov survey, released Thursday, shows that 72 percent of Americans have never heard of the term "civil asset forfeiture." The poll also suggests that a majority of Americans are unaware that police and other federal law enforcement agencies use the process in ways that routinely violate the rights of innocent property owners, according to critics. 

For example, just 30 percent of respondents correctly indicated that officers can permanently seize money or other property from a person when they suspect it’s connected to criminal activity, even without an arrest or conviction.

While civil asset forfeiture laws vary by state, most states and the federal government allow police to seize property immediately if they have probable cause to suspect it's tied to something illegal. 

The standard of proof officers must then establish to permanently seize that property depends on the state. Some states require only probable cause or a "preponderance of the evidence" -- in other words, authorities must establish that, more likely than not, the property is related to criminal activity. Both of these standards are far less stringent than the “beyond a reasonable doubt” benchmark required for criminal convictions.

In most states, property owners facing civil asset forfeiture are also responsible for proving that their property is not, in fact, connected to illegal activity. If they can't, they lose the property for good.

This effectively inverts the American legal principle that suspects are innocent until proven guilty, critics say.

But law enforcement officials say seizing assets can help them attack the finances of criminal enterprises that may have access to large sums of cash or other valuable property that police can't definitively link to criminal activity.

One way police say they target criminals is through cash seizures, one of the most controversial and common forms of asset civil forfeiture. In these cases, the mere presence of any large -- and sometimes not-so-large -- sum of money is often enough for an officer to claim there is probable cause to suspect the money is connected to criminal activity.

In many states, the owner must challenge the seizure in court and prove that they obtained their money legally to get it back, which can be difficult for anyone who doesn't keep meticulous financial records. This is an arduous and expensive undertaking, and it weighs most heavily on already disadvantaged people who lack the financial resources to mount a legal battle, especially after losing a significant amount of cash to authorities.

To prove that civil asset forfeitures are effective, law enforcement officials regularly point to their massive hauls of cash. A pile of money can understandably raise suspicion -- and, because of the law, that suspicion is often enough. But plenty of innocent people are getting caught up as well, a number of recent reports have found. In many cases, police are seizing hundreds or thousands of dollars, all based on tenuously backed claims about the money's unproven connection to crime.

If this entire process sounds absurd to you, the American public agrees. When asked what they believe the law should be, only seven percent of respondents in the recent HuffPost/YouGov poll said police should be permitted to permanently seize money or other property without first filing charges.

Nine percent of respondents said they thought civil forfeiture would be appropriate if the owner was charged with a crime, and 71 percent said they believed law enforcement should only be able to permanently seize property if the owner is charged with and convicted of a crime. 

Large majorities of Democrats, Independents and Republicans showed support for this standard, suggesting that there is little partisan division on the issue of civil asset forfeiture and the need for reform.

Respondents also expressed widespread disapproval of what happens to property once it's forfeited through civil proceedings. Just 13 percent of people said they believed the proceeds of civil asset forfeiture should flow back to police department budgets, while 39 percent said the proceeds should be channeled into the state budget, and 27 percent said they should be used for something else.

In reality, about four in five states have laws that direct a significant portion of forfeited proceeds back to the police department that made the seizure, as well as to the office of the prosecutors who litigated the case. Most states place at least some of this money in general funds, though those with the strongest forfeiture laws require 100 percent of this money to go into the state budget.

Law enforcement agencies have a huge incentive to seize property, thanks to federal civil forfeiture laws, which have more permissive standards than many states and serve as a loophole for many state agencies. Through the federal process, local authorities can receive up to 80 percent of proceeds from assets they seize. 

This incentive scheme has led many critics to argue that civil asset forfeiture promotes a system of policing for profit: law enforcement agencies make it a priority to seize property that can financially benefit their department, rather than ensuring public safety through a neutral administration of the law.

While this survey suggests Americans are largely unaware of civil asset forfeiture, their apparent opposition to how it's being used by law enforcement coincides with a growing movement for reform at both the state and federal levelNew Mexico and Montana have already overhauled their forfeiture laws this legislative session, and California, Michigan, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania are currently considering similar proposals.

Groups like the Institute for Justice, a libertarian public interest law firm that focuses on civil liberties, are helping to lead this charge. The HuffPost/YouGov poll proves the public supports reform -- even if many people don't know it yet, Lee McGrath, the group's legislative counsel, told The Huffington Post.

"This poll confirms the great American sense of justice that a person is innocent until proven guilty, and that applies to forfeiting the person's property" McGrath said. "Public opinion of law enforcement will continue to decline as more Americans learn the cops and prosecutors are engaging in policing and prosecuting for profit."

The poll numbers suggest reform efforts can only keep gaining momentum, said Holly Harris, executive director for Fix Forfeiture, an organization focused on reforming state forfeiture laws.

"This should be a wake-up call for lawmakers," she told HuffPost. "When more than 70 percent of people surveyed say that law enforcement should not be able to take a person's property unless that person is convicted of a crime, there is a public mandate for civil asset forfeiture reforms. We certainly will cite these numbers as our bipartisan organization pushes for more protections for innocent property owners."

The HuffPost/YouGov poll consisted of 1,000 completed interviews conducted Aug. 25-27 among U.S. adults, using a sample selected from YouGov's opt-in online panel to match the demographics and other characteristics of the adult U.S. population.

The Huffington Post has teamed up with YouGov to conduct daily opinion polls. You can learn more about this project and take part in YouGov's nationally representative opinion polling. Data from all HuffPost/YouGov polls can be found here. More details on the polls' methodology are available here.

Most surveys report a margin of error that represents some, but not all, potential survey errors. YouGov's reports include a model-based margin of error, which rests on a specific set of statistical assumptions about the selected sample, rather than the standard methodology for random probability sampling. If these assumptions are wrong, the model-based margin of error may also be inaccurate. Click here for a more detailed explanation of the model-based margin of error.

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