Curbing Civil Forfeitures: Supreme Court Rulings Upholds Property Rights By Checking Authority of State And Local Law Enforcement
Civil forfeiture, also known as civil asset forfeiture, civil judicial forfeiture, and civil seizure, is a practice used by authorities to seize any personal assets involved in criminal activities. Whether or not the owners of the seized properties are actually guilty of committing a crime, civil forfeitures afford law enforcement the power to seize any personal poverty involved in an alleged crime. Used properly, it can help law enforcement hobble criminal organizations by giving them the ability to confiscate the assets of criminal operations when authorities cannot amass the evidence needed to prove the guilt or ownership of the individuals involved. When misapplied or abused, the legal process places an unjust, unconstitutional burden on innocent citizens by forcing them to prove their innocence at their own expense, which undermines the Constitutionally guaranteed property rights of all US citizens.
Unfortunately, provisions in the Comprehensive Crime Control Act of 1984, which allowed local and Federal law enforcement agencies to utilize and disperse seized assets, created a perverse incentive to abuse civil forfeitures. Instead of judiciously deploying the legal practice to undermine criminal organizations that were particularly adept at hiding their guilt, law enforcement began using civil forfeitures to cover funding gaps. As long as authorities only targeted those who were unlikely to challenge the seizure of their property in the courts, e.g. the poor, out-of-state travelers, and the politically unconnected, unethical law enforcement officials were free to deploy the practice for any number of activities that appeared to be “criminal” in nature. In essence, the abuse of civil forfeiture is legal theft committed by law enforcement.
Although the practice of civil seizure has historic roots dating back to Colonial times, modern civil forfeitures had been on the decline since the end of the Prohibition Era. Due to the War on Drugs, however, the practice started to grow in popularity. Since then, a growing number of abuses have been documented, which has invited legal challenges. The 1993 Supreme Court case Austin v. US ruled that civil forfeitures treated as punitive action could violate the Excessive Fines clause of the Eighth Amendment while the 1998 Supreme Court case US v. Bajakajian reinforced the previous ruling. Regrettably, these rulings only applied to the actions of Federal law enforcement. Thanks to the 2019 ruling in Timbs v. Indiana, local and State law enforcement are now beholden to the protections afforded to US citizens under the Eight Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment.
What the Timbs v. Indiana ruling has done is given victims of improper civil forfeitures greater legal recourse. It has also created a legal precedent that will erect legal boundaries for all law enforcement, thus making it more costly and cumbersome to abuse civil forfeitures. Prior to the ruling, victims of corrupt and unethical law enforcement practices had to bear the burden of challenging their abuse and the abuse of power by law enforcement. Timbs v. Indiana places the burden where it should be: on law enforcement. Because law enforcement has found the extremely limited use of civil forfeitures to be invaluable when it comes to the drug trade and organized crime, Congress can help legitimize the practice by removing the perverse incentives it created. The administration of seized assets should have never been placed in the hands of law enforcement at the Federal, State, or local level nor should law enforcement funding depend on the amount of assets seized by law enforcement. The conflict of interest is obvious. Congress needs to place that authority in the hands of a transparent, independent body, and fully fund law enforcement.
Beyond civil forfeitures, the Timbs v. Indiana ruling reinforces the need for local and State law enforcement to consider the Eight Amendment and Fourteenth Amendment implications of their policies. Although advocates for States’ rights and local government might criticize the ruling as an example of the Federal government trampling State and local governments, it is actually an example of the Federal government protecting individuals from abusive State and local governments. The United States was founded as an illiberal, ill-democratic republic that has progressively expanded individual rights and freedoms. Not only does Timbs v. Indiana protect property rights, which were a foundation of the Marshall Court, it offers greater protections for all the rights of individuals from all levels of government by confronting abuses by authorities at all levels of government. It is an ideal exercise of judicial and Federal power against State and local governments as well as law enforcement. In an era defined by extreme political polarization and a Supreme Court under attack by radical partisans attempting to politicize the judiciary, this rare unanimous decision in support of vulnerable individuals represents the kind of action needed by the Courts and government in general.
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