As Government Revenues Fall, Asset Seizures Double

Asset Forfeiture: Money Too Easy to Resist?


I inadvertently badly scared my stepson when, as a little boy, he asked me if I had ever broken the law and I responded that there are so many laws that I was sure I broke one every day. Since 9/11, of course, this “overcriminalization of American life” has only exploded, and I am even more certain that if the government decided I would be better out of the way, they would have no problem convicting me of some spurious crime.

For thousands of people each year, the government doesn’t even need to convict them in order to seize and keep their property. As this Wall Street Journal article details,

Some 400 federal statutes—a near-doubling, by one count, since the 1990s—empower the government to take assets from convicted criminals as well as people never charged with a crime.

Last year, forfeiture programs confiscated homes, cars, boats and cash in more than 15,000 cases. The total take topped $2.5 billion, more than doubling in five years…

These 400 federal statutes range from drug-dealing to violations of the Northern Pacific Halibut Act. The bar of proof in such cases is exceptionally low: in civil forfeiture the government only has to show guilt by a “preponderance of evidence,” not beyond a reasonable doubt.

And the “evidence” may well be simple to produce. For example, dogs used to sniff for drugs as part of a traffic stop may well respond to traces of cocaine on money that studies show 90% of all currency in circulation carries.

Then, and contrary to every principle upon which the American justice system is supposed to be grounded, the person whose property has been seized bears the burden to prove himself innocent. As the late Congressman Henry Hyde pointed out during hearings to consider the expansion of forfeiture laws:

“It isn’t much good to say you have the right to get your property back if you can’t afford a lawyer [because the government has seized all your money].”

In this age of shrinking government budgets, the rewards from asset forfeiture are only growing ever more attractive. The state of Nebraska—through which Interstate 80 runs—for example, has been the fifth largest beneficiary of asset forfeitures, with one county receiving over $11 million since 2002, that it has used to pay for weapons, computers, uniforms, surveillance gear, travel, training, and a new, state-of-the art $4.2 million crime lab—all the better to process more “evidence” to keep more seized assets.

The Independent Institute has long been warning of this dangerous tool in the government’s arsenal—see our Independent Policy Report, “Civil Forfeiture as a ‘Sin’ Tax”—that is only growing more and more threatening.

Mary L. G. Theroux is Senior Vice President of the Independent Institute. Having received her A.B. in economics from Stanford University, she is Managing Director of Lightning Ventures, L.P., a San Francisco Bay Area investment firm, former Chairman of the Board of Advisors for the Salvation Army of both San Francisco and Alameda County, and Vice President of the C.S. Lewis Society of California.
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