And the drugs have won. Take a look at this news report from Tennessee on how law enforcement agencies are using civil asset forfeiture to “fight” drugs:
This report doesn’t explain much about how civil asset forfeiture works, so here’s a crash course. Under federal law, if police believe property was involved in a crime, they can seize it, sell it, and keep up to 80% of the proceeds while kicking the rest up to the feds under an arrangement known as equitable sharing. They do not need to convict or even charge anyone with a crime to complete the forfeiture because the government is literally accusing the property of a crime. This is why forfeiture cases have names like State v. $500 in cash or State v. 1974 Cadillac Eldorado. Conveniently, property does not have the same kind of pesky due process rights as a person, so, for instance, the government does not need to prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt but merely through a preponderance of the evidence.
That’s all very distressing to anyone concerned about preserving our civil and property rights, but it’s old hat by now. What’s striking about this video is that the police no longer appear interested in seizing drugs, just drug money. That’s a completely predictable result given their incentives. The police can’t sell the drugs themselves and keep the money–at least not legally–but they can tacitly allow drug dealers to do the work and then take the cash. Civil asset forfeiture laws were originally pitched as a tool to help cops end the drug trade, but instead, they have made law enforcement just another group competing for their cut of the profits.
If you’d like to learn more about asset forfeiture, you should watch this short video by the Institute for Justice or listen to this presentation by yours truly on how the practice is used and abused in Missouri.