Don Boudreaux is a professor of economics at George Mason University. He blogs at Café Hayek. I invited him to discuss civil asset forfeiture on the podcast because of a conversation we had about it at a recent Mercatus Center colloquium.
Civil asset forfeiture is the practice of the state taking someone’s property on suspicion that the property has been used for wrongdoing, without having to charge the owner with a crime.
Civil asset forfeiture had its origins in British maritime law. The British had difficulties with pirates along the Barbary Coast. When the pirates were apprehended and their ships brought back to London, British courts had difficulty deciding what to do with these ships. The ships’ owners were outside the jurisdiction of British law, so the courts couldn’t try and convict them, but they couldn’t send the ships back to them either only to have them return to the seas with a fresh pirate crew! Parliament thus passed a law allowing the courts to charge the property itself with the crime if and only if the property’s owner was outside the jurisdiction of British law.
Civil asset forfeiture, in this very limited form, was part of American law from the beginning. In the late 19th century, when alcohol was prohibited in some states, law enforcers started using civil asset forfeiture to confiscate the property of those suspected of producing, trafficking, and selling alcohol. This allowed them to circumvent due process, as American law only guarantees due process rights (such as the right to a trial by jury, the right to an attorney, the presumption of innocence, etc.) to human beings, and an alcohol still is not a human.
The US Supreme Court ruled on civil asset forfeiture in the case of Bennis v. Michigan (which Don wrote about in a 1996 article coauthored with A. C. Pritchard). John Bennis was caught with a prostitute in the 1977 Dodge Dart he co-owned with his wife, Tina Bennis. As a result, the state confiscated the car. Tina Bennis, however, had no knowledge of her husband’s wrongdoing, and argued that she should at least be entitled to her half of the proceeds from the sale of the car. The case went all the way to the US Supreme Court, where then-Chief Justice Rehnquist wrote the majority opinion in favour of the State of Michigan. Rehnquist argued that civil asset forfeiture was constitutional since it had been a part of British law when the Constitution was adopted. Rehnquist neglected the fact that the civil asset forfeiture law at that time had only applied when the property owner was outside the legal jurisdiction of the court. John and Tina Bennis were both within the legal jurisdiction of Wayne County, Michigan where the car was seized.
Police usually seize the assets of those groups in American society that have little political clout. A young black man driving in an expensive car and carrying a lot of cash can be pulled over and have his car and cash seized on suspicion that he might be a drug dealer. White, middle-class Americans rarely face the blatant, unjust seizure of their assets.
However, in a recent case, the City of Philadelphia seized the white, middle-class Sourovelis family’s home after their son sold $40 of heroin on the front lawn. The Sourovelis family is now suing the City of Brotherly Love in a class-action suit with others whose property the city has seized (see Sourovelis v. City of Philadelphia). This case has drawn more public attention to the injustice of civil asset forfeiture, though still less attention than the issue deserves.
For more information on civil asset forfeiture, you can learn about it from the Institute for Justice, a DC-based public-interest law firm that works against civil asset forfeiture.