Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.
Imagine being pulled over while driving down Route 1, and before you even realize what’s happening, the cops empty your wallet, take your phone and strip you of all cash on the spot. The reason? They suspect your property, but not you, of having ties to criminal activity.
Even if no charges are filed against you, you’ll probably never see that money again.
This nightmare is a disturbing reality for thousands of Americans every year, thanks to civil asset forfeiture. The prevalence of this practice in the United States has reached alarming heights, and it is time for us to abolish it.
Unlike criminal asset forfeiture, where a conviction is required for the government to seize property, the government simply needs to say that a piece of property was probably involved in some sort of crime — regardless of personal wrongdoing. Any protest or opposition from the property owner can only happen well after the property has been taken.
It’s terrifying in theory, but it’s even more terrifying in practice.
For instance, the New York Police Department ransacked the home of a Bronx resident and arrested him. After his case was dropped a year later, he went to reclaim his own money. He was told the $4,800 that the police had seized had already been added to the police pension fund.
His case is unique because he actually got something back. Roughly 88 percent of forfeiture cases go uncontested, and cases are even harder to contest for those with lower levels of education and income. In as many as 80 percent of civil forfeiture cases, the property owner is never charged with a crime. Once your property is seized, it’s effectively gone.
A myriad of studies has corroborated the fact that civil asset forfeiture preys on the vulnerable and powerless. Cars and cash are regularly seized from low-income Americans, preventing them from going to school or work. Conversely, sheriffs get to use seized Rolls-Royces and district attorneys get to use seized property for lavish gifts such as trips to Hawaii for staff — along with the judges that sign off on the use of forfeiture funds.
While states like Maryland have tried to curb such abuses of power, the federal government has made use of a new tactic: equitable sharing. Despite its name, the intent remains the same: enrich law enforcement through asset forfeiture. Through equitable sharing, federal law enforcement officers are able to skirt around state regulations and share up to 80 percent of the value of seized property with state officers.
These measures are insignificant in combating serious crime and drug use. In fact, the most significant correlation for this policy is that as unemployment increases, so does the number of assets seized. When communities are down on their luck, law enforcement finds easy pickings.
The equitable sharing program and civil asset forfeiture are abject failures of public policy. For-profit policing has no place in anything even resembling a fair justice system. Americans — disproportionately low-income ones — shouldn’t have to hire lawyers to prove their innocence because agents of the state feel like the possible scent of a drug is enough to seize their cars.
New Mexico and Maine have stepped up in fully abolishing the for-profit mode of policing based on civil asset forfeiture, and haven’t suffered any increase in crime. Maryland, and the U.S. as a whole, needs to end this regressive and archaic practice that punishes poor people at the arbitrary whim of law enforcement.
Criminal forfeiture is enough: someone convicted of running a drug ring or fraud scheme can still have their assets seized. Civil asset forfeiture is not a necessary tool for catching the bad guys, it’s a practice that allows law enforcement officers to steal with impunity.
For far too long, law enforcement agencies have been able to seize property without charging owners with a crime or providing any evidence of wrongdoing. Civil asset forfeiture is not a legitimate way to protect and serve anybody — it’s just robbery. If Maryland is to fully uphold individual liberties and fairness, then civil asset forfeiture must be abolished. Advocates for justice and accountability must fight against this legalized theft to protect some of our most marginalized communities.
Rohin Mishra is a sophomore economics and government and politics major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.