- 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.
Thanks to the Alex C. Walker Foundation’s generous $15,000 grant to the Institute for Justice, we are able to continue our aggressive fight against civil asset forfeiture abuse. We are pleased to report that our efforts are making a noticeable impact in combating this serious threat to private property rights.
On the litigation front, we won a quick victory in our Georgia forfeiture case in June when three law enforcement agencies agreed to disclose their takings through civil asset forfeiture as required by state law after IJ brought suit against them. The reporting law is supposed to act as a check on asset forfeiture abuse, but few agencies followed it. Our lawsuit helped bring accountability back to Georgia law enforcement.
Our other civil asset forfeiture litigation continues to move along. We filed an appeal in our ongoing Texas forfeiture case and oral arguments were held in May. Meanwhile in Massachusetts, we launched a new case to vindicate Russ Caswell and his wife, who could lose the motel Russ’ family has owned and operated for two generations. Russ and his wife haven’t committed any crimes, but the local police department wants to seize the Caswells’ $1 million property through civil forfeiture and keep the proceeds for itself. It justifies taking the Caswells’ property and livelihood by pointing to a handful of guests during the past 20 years who have been involved in illegal activity while at the motel. Because Russ and his wife are unconnected to these problems, they are innocent owners caught up in the sort of forfeiture abuse that is rampant across the country. We will be putting the federal forfeiture system on trial this fall to demonstrate the Caswells’ innocence and set important precedent for the rights of all innocent property owners.
Thanks in large part to IJ’s award-winning communications team, the Caswells’ case has drawn nationwide media coverage and brought new attention to this issue. It has earned favorable coverage in a number of national outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, Associated Press, and The Washington Post. Nationally syndicated columnist George F. Will also authored a piece on the case in May supporting the Caswells' fight to keep their motel. Moreover, Mr. Caswell, along with IJ Senior Attorney Scott Bullock, appeared on Fox Business Channel, and our video for the case (located at www.ij.org/massforfvideo) has been viewed more than 57,000 times.
Our strategic research team has been particularly productive as of late. We recently placed an updated version of our report, “Policing for Profit,” in the "Journal of Criminal Justice", one of the most prestigious academic journals on criminal justice. This placement in a peer-reviewed publication will lend enormous credibility to our claims about the dangers of forfeiture abuse. IJ also released nationwide polling data showing strong support for forfeiture reform as well as a two-page backgrounder on equitable sharing in California. Equitable sharing, which involves joint task forces between local and federal law enforcement agencies, acts as an end-around existing safeguards against asset forfeiture abuse and is one of the main targets of the current legislative reform effort. Moreover, our strategic research team also released "Inequitable Justice: How Federal 'Equitable Sharing' Encourages Local Police and Prosecutors to Evade State Civil Forfeiture Law for Financial Gain," which details how the federal government’s 'equitable sharing' program encourages property rights abuses. Please see the accompanying attachments for full copies of all four documents.
Finally, IJ Minnesota Chapter Director Lee McGrath worked with legislators in Georgia who want to introduce IJ’s model asset forfeiture reform legislation and will be working with them in the next legislative session. Moreover, important parts of IJ's model civil forfeiture legislation were adopted in Minnesota in March, strengthing protections for property owners.
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 profit. This undermines fundamental constitutional rights to property and due process.
This is a nationwide project of the Institute for Justice. If successful, we will help rebalance law enforcement priorities, take the perverse financial incentive out of civil forfeiture, and protect innocent property owners from government abuse.
(Check sent: 7/5/2011)