Civil forfeiture (otherwise known as civil asset forfeiture, civil judicial forfeiture, or civil seizure) is a legal mechanism allowing law enforcement officers to take assets from persons who are suspected of committing a crime or illegal activity. This process has occurred in the United States for decades; one of the facets of this procedure that is both unique and controversial is that assets can be seized without necessarily charging the owners with wrongdoing.
For instance, a person driving down a freeway may get pulled over; said driver just finished selling their expensive watch to an individual they met on eBay and maybe failed to get a receipt. An officer searches the driver’s vehicle, discovers thousands of dollars in the form of cash and finds the discovery “suspicious.” The officer then asks the driver to prove the money was not involved in criminal activity. Such a request isn’t so simple to honor; unlike a civil procedure (person v. person), a civil seizure is a dispute between law enforcement and property.
Essentially, a police officer can take someone’s property – without any proof of a crime – and tell them if they want it back they have to take steps to prove that the property isn’t linked to a crime. Proving the innocence of one’s money or car isn’t a simple endeavor, one may have to hire an attorney they cannot afford. As you can imagine, some people involved in these types of cases are unable to cover the cost of hiring representation and give up and lose their property. It’s a scenario that plays out more times than not!
Naturally, law enforcement agencies are allowed to keep the property seized that victims are unable to prove ownership. Critics of this practice sometimes refer to it as “policing for profit.”
Civil Forfeiture On the Ropes
We have taken the time to cover the controversial practice of civil forfeiture on numerous occasions in recent years. Major media outlets have done exposés on the subject highlighting severe abuses across the country by both local, state, and Federal law enforcement agencies. HBO’s comedic commentator John Oliver did a whole segment on the practice in 2014. Oliver breaks down the problem, one that allows billions of dollars to be confiscated without ever charging anyone with a crime.
Last month, the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) weighed in on civil forfeiture. The Justices agreed unanimously to place limitations on civil forfeiture, but did not ban the practice outright. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg authored the opinion in Timbs v. Indiana. Timbs pled guilty to selling heroin; he paid his fines ($1,203), did house arrest, went to treatment for opioid addiction, and is on five years of probation. Then the state of Indiana hired a private law firm to help seize Timbs’ Land Rover; the vehicle was valued at $42,000 (more than four times the maximum fine for a drug conviction), Slate reports. The state and its law firm would share the profits of the seizure.
However, the Eighth Amendment guarantees that no “excessive fines” may be “imposed,” applied to the states through the 14th Amendment. Timbs fought it and lost in the Indiana Supreme Court. The case was taken up by SCOTUS which ruled:
“the historical and logical case for concluding that the Fourteenth Amendment incorporates the Excessive Fines Clause is overwhelming …. the judgment of the Indiana Supreme Court is vacated, and the case is remanded for further proceedings not inconsistent with this opinion.”
This case will set a precedent for years to come, and there is little doubt that similar cases will be affected.
Orange County Criminal Defense
Please reach out to the Law Office of Ronald G. Brower if you are facing criminal charges. We can advocate for you and help you achieve the best possible outcome in your situation. With more than three decades of practicing law, you can trust that Attorney Brower will provide you with excellent representation.