Many police stations across the country use the seizing of private property to discourage criminal activity. The practice, called civil forfeiture, is widely accepted as a standard in police tactics.
However, the Supreme Court has ruled the power is limited under the U.S. Constitution. Just what is civil forfeiture, and why could it be unconstitutional?
Understanding civil forfeiture
The act of civil forfeiture involves taking someone’s property, even if they are not accused of a crime. All that is needed is to suspect the property has been used in a crime.
The standard is difficult to disprove, as the burden lies on the individual. They must prove their property wasn't involved in a criminal activity. Many people find themselves at a loss after police impound their cars.
Police agencies use this private property to support their annual budget, by selling it at police auctions.
The Supreme Court ruled that the act of forfeiture is allowed, but that the property taken needs to reflect the severity of the crime.
The issue came before the court because of a case in which a person was arrested for selling heroin and police confiscated his $42,000 Land Rover.
The crime resulted in a thousand-dollar fine and probation. Because of this, the court ruled taking the vehicle was excessive.
Law enforcement agencies argue that civil forfeiture is a vital tool to combating people in the drug trade. By taking their expensive property and equipment, they make it unprofitable to deal drugs.
Police also claim that the money they raise in civil forfeiture cases is vital to their bottom line. Many agencies would not be able function without relying on them.
While the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that civil forfeiture has limits, it did not do away with the practice entirely.
Those accused of a crime need to be aware of the potential to lose vehicles and other private property in addition to any criminal charges.
If you’re facing criminal charges, a knowledgeable attorney can help reduce the impact of civil forfeiture.