Civil forfeiture in the United States is a controversial legal process that allows law enforcement agencies to take assets, including cash, cars, homes and other property, from persons suspected of involvement in illegal activity.
Unlike criminal forfeiture, civil forfeiture does not require the property owner to be charged or convicted with a crime for their assets to be taken. Millions of dollars in assets are collected each year, most of which are kept by the law enforcement agency that collects them.
The U.S. Department of Justice uses the following justifications for civil forfeitures:
Punishment and deterrence. To punish and deter criminal activity by not allowing criminals to use and enjoy the assets they acquire through criminal activity.
Enhance police cooperation. To increase cooperation among foreign, federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies by sharing the assets recovered through the process.
Revenue for law enforcement. Assets acquired through civil forfeiture help produce revenue to enhance the forfeiture process and strengthen law enforcement.
What Proponents Say
Proponents of civil forfeiture see it as a powerful tool to discourage crime. Some feel the process is especially valuable in dismantling illegal drug trade, as it allows law enforcement to seize cash and other assets that come from drug trafficking. Because civil forfeiture allows police to take assets away from suspected criminals and put these toward minimizing crime, proponents believe it is an efficient, Robin Hood-like process of taking bad things and using them for good.
What Critics Say
Critics of civil forfeiture say the process too often involves innocent citizens who have their property rights violated by law enforcement. Those who have their property confiscated through civil forfeiture are at a legal disadvantage because they are presumed guilty instead of innocent. Critics also say that the profit law enforcement acquires by taking property leads to police corruption and misbehavior.
Organizations such as the American Civil Liberties Union argue civil forfeiture is often associated with racial profiling and disproportionately impacts low-income African-American or Hispanic people who the police deem suspicious based on their appearance or socioeconomic status.
Those who have their property taken through civil forfeiture must prove that they are not involved in any criminal activity in order to get it back. This task can be both challenging and expensive.
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