Asset Forfeiture reform gets unlikely allies

It’s safe to say that asset forfeiture is in need of serious reform, and the idea seems to be getting some support from unlikely individuals. Reason reports that when Ted Cruz was asked at CPAC “specifically about asset forfeiture reform, [he] stressed that it was a ‘property rights issue’ and [something] Republicans ought to support.” Reason reports Cruz also said he had seen too many violent offenders to back more comprehensive reform. At least it’s a start in the right direction.

Another unlikely supporter of asset forfeiture reform, Clarence Thomas, sits on the US Supreme Court. Thomas made his remarks after the high court refused to hear the case of Lisa Olivia Leonard v. Texas. According to the statement released by the Court, “Early in the morning on April 1, 2013, a police officer stopped James Leonard for a traffic infraction along a known drug corridor.” Police found a safe in the car, which Leonard indicated belonged to his mother, the petitioner in the case. “The officer obtained a search warrant and discovered that the safe contained $201,100 and a bill of sale for a Pennsylvania home.”

Not satisfied with a bill of sale, “The State initiated civil forfeiture proceedings against the $201,100 on the ground that it was substantially connected to criminal activity.” Leonard appealed the forfeiture order, and despite pleas that the money was from selling a house, “the Court of Appeals affirmed the trial court’s conclusion that the government had shown by a preponderance of the evidence that the money was either the proceeds of a drug sale or intended to be used in such.”

At no point was Lisa Leonard, James Leonard, or the passenger involved in the initial traffic stop charged with any crime in connection to possession of this money. Instead, the court ruled, as is the rule in all civil asset forfeiture cases, there was a “preponderance of the evidence” that the money was connected to illegal activity. The difference between civil and criminal asset forfeiture is that with criminal forfeiture, the burden is on the prosecutor to prove the person owning or possessing the items was guilty of certain illegal activities; while civil forfeiture requires the owner of the property to sufficiently prove to the court that the property was not used for illegal purposes.

Justice Thomas wrote, “This system — where police can seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use — has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses.” Thomas cited the 1835 Supreme Court ruling of United States v The Brig Burdett, (“the penalty should not be inflicted, unless the infractions of the law shall be established beyond reasonable doubt”) before concluding, “Whether this Court’s treatment of the broad modern forfeiture practice can be justified… is certainly worthy of consideration in greater detail.”

Unfortunately, Lisa Leonard is just one of the countless victims of this legalized form of theft, which has extracted billions of dollars from people never charged with or convicted of a crime. Such a system should not exist in civilized society!