The Government Hates Competition

A heretofore under-reported bit of government odiousness is finally getting the headline treatment it so richly deserves. Civil asset forfeiture, where government seizes money and property it believes was involved in or the result of a crime without successful prosecution and conviction of a perpetrator, is making a comeback. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, my so-far least-favorite Trump appointment, recently reinstated certain asset-forfeiture practices that were properly rolled back by Obama’s Justice Department.

In particular, Sessions reinstitute the “Equitable Sharing Process,” where the feds get involved in forfeiture proceedings initiated at a local level, then kick back 80% of the take to the local entities. Perhaps you think “so what?” or “good! The Feds have more resources” on a presumption that they’re fighting drug trafficking or other crime.

And, indeed, it’s being sold as an essential weapon for fighting drug trafficking. But, in practice, it’s as much a way to take money and assets from innocents who can’t fight back as it is a way to combat drug crime.

The problem is, as I noted, that this forfeiture differs from criminal forfeiture in that it doesn’t require or even involve charging and convicting a person of a crime. Instead, the government, bizarrely, charges the asset itself with a crime, and indictments are phrased as “city of XXX vs $4320.00.” Unsurprisingly, such proceedings end up with the asset in the government’s possession, and the actual property owner in a position of having to hire a lawyer to fight to get it back. When the asset is something like just a few thousand dollars, it’s an no-win scenario, since legal fees would gobble it all up anyway.

Civil asset forfeiture really is a license to steal, and the only bulwark against it is the good will and honest intention of the people who benefit from the addition to their budgets.

In case you think this may be a molehill of an issue, here’s a jarring fact: in 2014, the government collected more via forfeiture than burglars did. More than $5 billion was added to the bank accounts of federal, state and local governments that year.

Again – civil asset forfeiture does not require a conviction, except for a handful of states that have enacted reforms. With Sessions reinstating Equitable Sharing, it may turn out that localities can dodge their own states’ rules and resume their policing-for-profit. Sometimes, simply having a large amount of cash in your car during a traffic stop ends with the presumption of illegal gains and the confiscation of what could be your life savings – just so the locals can buy a shiny new cruiser.

Even reflexive law-and-order types and overt drug warriors should be offended by this sordid business. We have Constitutional protections for due process for a reason, and this dodge of charging a thing instead of a person makes a mockery of those protections. There are codified standards for forfeiture – they couldn’t get away with simply taking your stuff without some sort of process – but they’re typically much lower than those of a criminal process (again, excepting states like Vermont, Montana, Minnesota, and New Mexico that require a conviction in most cases). I highly recommend the Institute for Justice’s website to interested readers.

Trump and Sessions are on the wrong side of this issue. Lest anyone think that Sessions has gone rogue, Trump in February threatened to destroy the career of a Texas state senator who was advancing legislation requiring a conviction prior to forfeiture. And, lest you think this is about drug dealers getting away with their ill-gotten gains, consider this story about how a broken taillight traffic stop ended up with more than $50,000 in collected cash donations taken from a religious group, with not even a suggestion of criminal activity.

Other people’s money is a powerful motivator, and government people are not immune from its siren song. We’d like to think that our public servants are honest and upright, and many of them are. But, even upright people can lean the wrong way at times, and convince themselves that the big picture can justify transgressions. And, it is a fact that the less-moral and more self-interested in government often crowd out those who’d do the right thing, especially when OPM is involved. Power corrupts.

Sessions is taking the nation in the wrong direction here. Congress would do well to rein this atrocious practice in, and indeed some legislation has been introduced to curb abuse. There’s only one morally acceptable side to be on. Choose correctly.

Peter Venetoklis

About Peter Venetoklis

I am twice-retired, a former rocket engineer and a former small business owner. At the very least, it makes for interesting party conversation. I'm also a life-long libertarian, I engage in an expanse of entertainments, and I squabble for sport.

Nowadays, I spend a good bit of my time arguing politics and editing this website.

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