By Chris Corso,Attorney-at-law
Civil forfeiture laws are a trending topic right now in the media and an interesting one to say the least. Forfeiture laws allow officials to confiscate cash or property tied to criminal activity. Unlike criminal asset forfeiture, civil forfeiture laws allow police to seize property and assets in question even if a conviction is never made.
Depending on each state’s forfeiture laws, police can keep a percentage of the confiscated profits, and the remaining percent will go to the feds. Texas does not have a good reputation when it comes to civil forfeiture laws. The Justice Institute graded these laws in each state and gave Texas a D- because law enforcement agencies can keep up to 70% of forfeited assets.
If owners of the seized property want their items back, Texas’ laws require them to prove their innocence in the case. In fact, Texas averages $41.6 million in forfeitures each year.
The Problem with Asset Forfeiture
Why would law enforcement need to keep seized assets even if no one was charged or convicted?
According to the FBI, the purpose of asset forfeiture is to, “undermine the economic infrastructure of the criminal enterprise.” By taking away assets and property linked to a crime, police aim to discourage criminal activity and make it less profitable for those involved.
While that makes sense for instances of criminal forfeiture, which requires a conviction, critics feel that civil forfeiture laws leave room for abuse, allowing struggling law enforcement agencies to benefit from revenue collected from confiscated assets.
Calling for Reform
At the end of 2015, the Department of Justice (DOJ) put a temporary suspension of payments to local law enforcement agencies that participate in the federal asset forfeiture program.
In January, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder put a restriction on which assets could be seized by federal agencies. Despite these efforts, not much has changed and law enforcement is still allowed to seize property without a charge or conviction.
Although asset forfeiture has been around for a long time, the issue of policing for profit is only just now gaining awareness as Americans realize that innocent people are permanently losing their property and, as a result, law enforcement is profiting from these losses.
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