- Investigates causes tending to destroy or impair the free-market system.
Civil asset forfeiture threatens the property rights of all Americans. These laws allow the police to seize your home, car, cash, or other property upon the mere suspicion that it has been used or involved in criminal activity. Civil forfeiture is a legal fiction that permits law enforcement to charge property with a crime. Unlike criminal forfeiture, where property is taken away only after its owner has been found guilty in a court of law, with civil forfeiture, owners need not be convicted of any crime to lose their property. The Institute for Justice is challenging this abuse in court and the court of public opinion to take the profit out of civil forfeiture and protect innocent owners caught up in an upside-down legal process that violates fundamental constitutional protections.
On March 30, 2010, the Institute for Justice launched its campaign to rein in asset forfeiture abuse with the release of a major national report, Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture (attached), edited by IJ’s strategic research team. In the first part of the study, three criminal justice professors, Marian Williams and Jeff Holcomb of Appalachian State University and Tomislav Kovandzic of the University of Texas at Dallas, analyze national forfeiture data and find that state and local law enforcement use forfeiture more when laws make it easier (by making it harder for owners to reclaim their property) and more rewarding (by returning forfeiture proceeds to law enforcement). In other words, the data show that law enforcement is policing for profit. The second part of the report, by IJ senior attorney Scott Bullock, provides a state-by-state analysis of forfeiture laws as well as available data on forfeiture for each state. It also grades the 50 states using objective criteria that encompass both the legal environment and the behavior of law enforcement in pursuing forfeitures. The report offers opportunities to push for reform in the states and also at the federal level, where awful laws encourage abuse by both federal and state law enforcement.
A week after the release of the report, IJ filed a lawsuit in Texas backed by the study. Our client, Houston small businessman Zaher El-Ali, who goes by “Ali,” is a classic American immigrant success story and an innocent property owner caught up in forfeiture proceedings. In 2004, Ali sold a truck to a man who paid him on credit. As with most cars bought on credit, Ali held the title to the car until he was paid in full. The purchaser was found guilty of driving while intoxicated in July 2009, and subsequently Texas police seized the car and filed a civil forfeiture action: State of Texas v. One 2004 Chevrolet Silverado. Even though Ali still holds the title to the car and has never been accused of breaking any laws, he is required to petition the court to get his truck back. The burden is on him, not the government, to try to get his rightfully owned property back, because with civil forfeiture, your property is guilty until you can prove it innocent.
In addition to the Texas case, the Institute for Justice is investigating other possible civil asset forfeiture litigation in federal and state courts across the country, and we hope to launch more cases in 2010. IJ’s director of activism and coalitions Christina Walsh is currently working with state legislatures to reform forfeiture policies and procedures.
The overriding goal for prosecutors and police should be fair and impartial administration of justice. Civil forfeiture law at the federal level and in more than 40 states, however, dangerously transforms law enforcement priorities away from this goal and instead toward the pursuit of property and currency. This undermines fundamental constitutional rights to property and due process.
This is a new, nationwide project of the Institute for Justice. If successful, we will help rebalance law enforcement priorities, take the profit out of civil forfeiture, and protect innocent property owners from government abuse. A victory in our case in Texas will strengthen protections for blameless owners and end the perverse incentive structure under which agencies financially gain from civil forfeiture in Texas.
We have already begun disseminating our findings on asset forfeiture abuse to the public. IJ’s communications team produced a video showcasing the results of the Policing for Profit report (located at www.ij.org/forfeiture.) Released simultaneously with the study, the video has over 17,000 views already on YouTube and is the most watched IJ video of all time.
In April, Fox’s John Stossel show featured IJ senior attorney Scott Bullock and Reason Foundation’s senior editor Radley Balko to discuss the abuses of asset forfeiture in the context of our Texas lawsuit and IJ’s strategic research report on the subject.
Since the report’s release, many national outlets have covered the lawsuit in Texas or the study, including The Economist (which had a long feature that ran under the sub-headline, “How the police can seize your stuff when you have not been proven guilty of anything”), the Dallas Morning News, Mother Jones, National Journal, National Law Journal and The Volokh Conspiracy. Our client, Ali, authored an op-ed in the Houston Chronicle in which he tells his personal story of forfeiture abuse. Scott Bullock, the IJ attorney working on the case, also authored eight different op-eds personalized to some of the states with the worst abuses of asset forfeiture: Arizona, Georgia, Massachusetts, Michigan, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia.
In addition, the campaign opens possibilities of non-traditional alliances and marketing to new audiences for IJ, such as groups and opinion leaders that are concerned about abuses of the criminal justice system. For instance, IJ’s Scott Bullock co-authored with the ACLU’s Vanita Gupta an op-ed that appeared on The Huffington Post.
Project Link http://ij.org/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=3307&Itemid=165
(Check sent: 6/16/2010)