Civil Asset Forfeiture

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Civil Asset Forfeiture Robs You.

By Eapen Thampy

The popular notion of American democracy is that of a government “for, by, and of the people”. Tragically, this ideal has been substantially undermined by the emergence of the War on Drugs, and particularly through the widespread use of the practice of civil asset forfeiture. Under civil asset forfeiture, American law enforcement (federal, state, and local) has the ability to fund themselves without legislative appropriation or voter consent.

In 1984 Congress allowed the Departments of Justice and the Treasury to keep the proceeds of property forfeited under federal law. By the end of the decade, most states had adopted a similar system; today, most states allow law enforcement to keep 100% of the proceeds of forfeiture.

Letting law enforcement keep forfeiture revenues has several important implications: it incentivizes law enforcement to prioritize enforcement that might yield profitable seizures over the enforcement demanded by constituents; it allows government bureaucrats the ability to set policy and spend money free from meaningful civilian or democratic oversight; and it turns law enforcement into a special interest invested in drug prohibition and other laws that create revenue for law enforcement.

The existence of this system helps explain why the War on Drugs has been a much more dangerous and destructive exercise in public policy than the prohibition of alcohol. While alcohol prohibition was enforced in destructive ways, it didn’t federalize state and local law enforcement or give police a financial stake in the laws they enforced.

Today, law enforcement are the most important opponents of drug policy reform. This is particularly evident in the marijuana law reform movement, where law enforcement representatives actively deny scientific reality, popular opinion, and rational policy evaluation to protect the revenue stream that is marijuana prohibition.

While civil forfeiture has substantially undermined democracy under the guise of the War on Drugs, it is not a fatal blow. Legislatures can still reassert their “power of the purse” by abolishing civil forfeiture and reclaiming forfeiture revenues for public use. Indeed, this may be the fundamental political battle of drug prohibition: to end the ability of unelected bureaucrats to determine public policy through the asset forfeiture racket.

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