Civil forfeiture is the process by which law enforcement agencies are able to seize the property of citizens upon the belief that the property has been used in the commission of a crime, or was obtained using the proceeds of a crime. This power, however, has been interpreted very broadly. For example, according to the website of the Bannock County prosecuting attorney:
“Law enforcement officers are allowed to seize property, such as currency, vehicles, jewelry, and other items of value, from individuals when the property is found in close proximity to drugs and/or drug paraphernalia. In addition, property may be seized when it is used to transport drugs and/or drug paraphernalia or if the property is procured from drug profits.”
In some states, law enforcement agents have seized people’s property simply because they were carrying large amounts of cash, regardless of whether drugs were involved. In Philadelphia, a family is facing the prospect of losing its home because a son was arrested for having $40 worth of heroin.
The civil forfeiture process was originally intended to put a damper on the profits of drug dealers, but it has become a tool for depriving citizens of their property and for filling the coffers of law enforcement agencies.
The problem is compounded because the legal process employed is a civil one rather than a criminal one. Indeed, no conviction of a crime is even necessary for the seizure to be upheld. Furthermore, because the legal process is not criminal in nature, the burden of proof is much lower than in a criminal case, and the property owner is not entitled to a public defender even if he is indigent. This means that many assets confiscated via civil forfeiture are never contested in court because the cost of fighting may exceed the value of the assets seized.
To make matters worse, law enforcement agencies are typically permitted to keep the assets that they seize, with little to no reporting required. It is difficult to know how extensively civil forfeiture is used in Idaho, because of the lack of reporting. We don’t know how much is being taken, we don’t know how the property is being disposed of and we don’t know what is being done with the proceeds.
Because the civil forfeiture process has such great potential for abuse and because it turns the presumption of “innocent until proven guilty” on its head, some states like Minnesota have passed statutes to eliminate civil forfeiture and only allow forfeiture of property when the owner is convicted of a crime.
Idaho should protect the property rights of its residents by following Minnesota’s lead in abolishing civil forfeiture.