Civil Asset Forfeiture and the ‘Piratical’ State

We at the Cato Institute have warned time and time again of the dangers of civil forfeiture laws, which empower law enforcement authorities to seize cars, money, houses and office equipment alleged (often on a flimsy basis) to have been used to advance unlawful conduct. Even if no related criminal charges are brought – or even if the defendant manages convincingly to beat those charges – the law enforcement agencies often assert a right to keep the property, giving it back, if at all, only after costly litigation. In the mean time, finding a lawyer to fight the process can be difficult because the government has seized the assets that would ordinarily be used to pay that lawyer.

In recent days a crop of especially outrageous forfeiture stories has been making headlines:

  • Nashville’s WTVF exposed a pattern in which some rural Tennessee police agencies stop out-of-state motorists and then seize any large amounts of cash found on the grounds that the motorists could not prove they were not involved in drug trafficking or some other unlawful activity. Read the story and decide whether you would feel more secure driving in Monterey, Tenn. or Monterrey, Mexico
  • It’s hard to top the Tennessee story, but Cato Media Fellow Radley Balko has just published a Huffington Post expose of how Wisconsin police seize cash intended for bail money, on the grounds that police dogs sniffed drug residue on it – even though a victim family was able to establish in one instance that the cash had just come from bank ATMs.
  • George Will, the syndicated columnist and 2010 Friedman Prize keynoter, has a blistering new column (“When government is the looter”) on the combined effort by “piratical” federal officials and police in Tewksbury, Mass. to confiscate the Caswell Motel, whose elderly owner has been charged with no crime but whose inexpensive lodgings have sometimes been used by drug dealers. More in this strongly worded Washington Post editorial.

Imagine a system under which an individual arresting officer stood to become personally wealthy by collaring an asset-rich defendant and railroading him on suspicion of something-or-other. Now imagine instead that it’s the police department as a whole that faces the same corrupting temptation. Why do the courts stand for it?