U.K.’s “Unexplained Wealth Orders” Give the State Too Much Power

I’ve got a piece in the Washington Examiner this morning on a remarkable new law enforcement tool in Britain:

It’s like, “Your papers, please,” but for things you own.

Authorities in Britain have begun trying out a new police power called unexplained wealth orders under a law that took effect last year. The police go to a court and say you’re living way above any known legitimate income. The judge then signs an order compelling you to show that your possessions (whether a house, fancy car, or jewelry) have been obtained honestly and not with dirty money. In the meantime, the boat or artwork or other assets get frozen, and you can’t sell them until you’ve shown you obtained them innocently.

The kicker: The burden of proof falls on you, not the government. If you don’t prove the funds were clean, Her Majesty may be presumed entitled to keep the goodies….

Related to the flipping of the burden of proof, the law says information dug up via one of the orders can’t then be used in criminal charges against the target.

…advocates want this to be the start of hundreds of seizure actions against other rich foreigners in the British capital.

Some are already calling for bringing a law like this to the United States, and maybe we’re halfway there already. Asset forfeiture laws, blessed by the Supreme Court, already let police seize your property on suspicion of involvement in a crime and make you go to court to get it back. We’ve been chipping away at financial privacy in this country for decades, through Know Your Customer, suspicious-activity reports, and FATCA (expatriate tax) rules.

Ironically — though recent enactments by Parliament may be changing this, too — Britain’s own peripheral territories and dependencies, including the Channel Islands, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, etc. have long made a good business out of furnishing the rest of the world with the means of financial privacy.

The reversal of the presumption of innocence troubles many Britons, too. For the moment, use of the orders is limited to a few elite law enforcement agencies. One of those agencies, however, is Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs — the tax collectors. It’s not wrong to worry about where this idea is headed.

Whole thing here.