The government is absolutely brilliant when it comes to making dramatic and life-altering laws sound so boring you'd rather get a root canal than figure out what they really mean. So it's no surprise people's eyes glaze over at the mention of "civil asset forfeiture." Call it something else --- legalized governmental theft --- and they just might perk up.
Don't think it exists? Just ask Lyndon McClellan, whose bank account of more than $107,000 was seized by the IRS in 2014. As the owner of a convenience store in Fairmont, North Carolina for over a decade, the IRS deemed McClellan's frequent cash deposits evidence of criminal activity, and a good enough reason to take his money --- even though he was never charged with a crime.
If it could happen to McClellan, it could happen to anyone.
Here are some facts you should know about how the government lawfully takes property from innocent citizens.
What Is It?
According to the Institute for Justice, civil asset forfeiture is the process by which the government takes and sells someone's property without ever convicting them with a crime, and "one of the greatest threats to property rights in the nation today."
They go on to describe how these cases proceed under the "legal fiction" that cash, cars or homes can be "guilty," leading to some bizarre case names such as, "United States v. 434 Main Street, Tewksbury, Mass." Because these cases are technically civil actions, property owners are not considered eligible to receive standard protections merited to criminal defendants, such as an attorney and a trial.
How Did It Start?
The roots of civil asset forfeiture laws date back to the 1600s in England, eventually making their way into colonial law, which earns them one of the longest running legal legacies on record. Popularized during the prohibition era and used sparingly in the 20's and 30's, these laws temporarily fell out of favor until the drug wars of the 1980s.
What's the Argument for Keeping It?
Some people --- particularly in law enforcement --- love the program and will fight tooth and nail to not only keep it but expand its use even further. Those in favor see it as a way to stop drug cartels and limit the ability of drug dealers and "bad hombres" to engage in illicit business.
The Federalist Society makes these points in favor of the law:
The government also uses forfeiture to take the profit out of crime, and to return property to victims. No one has the right to retain the money gained from bribery, extortion, illegal gambling, or drug dealing. With the forfeiture laws, we can separate the criminal from his profits --- and any property traceable to it --- thus removing the incentive others may have to commit similar crimes tomorrow. And if the crime is one that has victims --- like carjacking or fraud --- we can use the forfeiture laws to recover the property and restore it to the owners far more effectively than the restitution statutes permit.
Does the President Support It?
While addressing a group of sheriffs earlier this month, President Donald Trump appeared to fully endorse civil asset forfeiture. After one sheriff opined about a troublesome bill seeking to abolish the practice in Texas, Trump demanded the name of the person introducing the bill and said, "We'll destroy his career."
In all fairness to President Trump, he did not appear to have prior knowledge about the program. If you watch this video, Trump seemed to ask plenty of questions with the intent gaining a greater understanding, but he only got the law enforcement's version.
What's the Argument for Abolishing It?
This argument seems simple --- the government should have to prove wrongdoing before being able to seize someone's money, car, home or any other asset. The Foundation for Economic Education made this point:
In poor nations, a corrupt cop will stop motorists to shake them down for pocket change. In the United States, we’ve legalized a bigger version of that sleazy behavior.
Who Is Opposing It?
Some politicians, including Rep. Justin Amash (R-MI), have taken a strong stance against civil asset forfeiture. After Trump's statements, Amash came out with the following response:
President Trump today endorsed stealing property from law-abiding Americans who haven't been charged with --- let alone convicted of --- any crime. He also said, "We'll destroy his career," about a conservative Texas state senator who opposes this unconstitutional civil asset forfeiture.
My staff and I will work to introduce a bill to end civil asset forfeiture. I always will stand up for limited government, economic freedom, and individual liberty. And I always will keep my oath to support and defend the Constitution.
What Is Glenn's Point of View?
Glenn shared his thoughts on the civil asset forfeiture on his February 13, 2017 radio program, in light of news coverage of President Trump's meeting with sheriffs. Below are excerpts from his monologue:
Civil asset forfeiture --- we talked about that last week. But we didn't talk about what that was about. We've been very concerned. And if you are a conservative and you're suddenly not concerned about this, ask yourself why.
Because we were all very concerned when this was happening under Barack Obama. And no matter what anybody tells you, it is not good. If we don't put a fence around this and make sure that it is only used for what it was meant to be used for.
And, quite honestly, I have a problem with it, even the way it was meant to be used.
It means that you don't even have to be charged with a crime, let alone found guilty. Charged with a crime. And the police can come in and take your stuff, seize it, claim it to be theirs, sell it, use the money any way they want, and you have no recourse.
Unfortunately, it's happening to regular people.
If it happens to one person, it needs to be guarded against. And it's happened to several people. I'm going to give you some examples coming up in a second. But it's happened to several people. And it has to be guarded against and stopped.