Today’s Wall Street Journal has part 2 of its critical look at the powers of federal law enforcement agencies and the focus of this article is on the power to seize cash, cars, homes, and other assets from people who have not been convicted of a crime. It’s called “civil asset forfeiture” because there is no criminal prosecution. Here’s an excerpt (subscription only):
New York businessman James Lieto was an innocent bystander in a fraud investigation last year. Federal agents seized $392,000 of his cash anyway.
An armored-car firm hired by Mr. Lieto to carry money for his check-cashing company got ensnared in the FBI probe. Agents seized about $19 million—including Mr. Lieto’s money—from vaults belonging to the armored-car firm’s parent company.
He is one among thousands of Americans in recent decades who have had a jarring introduction to the federal system of asset seizure. Some 400 federal statutes—a near-doubling, by one count, since the 1990s—empower the government to take assets from convicted criminals as well as people never charged with a crime.
Last year, forfeiture programs confiscated homes, cars, boats, and cash in more than 15,000 cases. The total take topped $2.5 billion, more than doubling in five years, Justice Department statistics show.
The expansion of forfeiture powers is part of a broader growth in recent decades of the federal justice system that has seen hundreds of new criminal laws passed. Some critics have dubbed the pattern as the overcriminalization of American life.
Last year, Cato hosted an event on the problem of forfeiture law and before that published numerous books and studies and articles. It’s nice to see the Wall Street Journal highlighting this problem for its readership.