Curbing asset forfeiture abuse
The campaign to stop law enforcement form seizing property it claims or suspects is part of a criminal enterprise is getting some additional traction in Georgia, where a state lawmaker has proposed legislation to curb the perverse financial incentives that encourage police have to abuse the system for their own gain:
Under civil asset forfeiture laws in other states, police can seize property they believe is connected to criminal activity, even if the owners are not charged with a crime.
Law enforcement groups say asset forfeiture is a vital tool to disrupt drug trafficking and other organized crime by targeting their illicit gains. Police seize millions of dollars and tons of narcotics during highway traffic stops every year.
However, civil liberties groups from across the political spectrum say innocent property owners are victims of lax safeguards, poor transparency, and the perverse profit incentives of asset forfeiture without ever being charged, much less convicted, of a crime.
"If my bill becomes law, [police] will still have that tool in the toolbox," Turner, who represents a suburb to the north of Atlanta, tells Reason. "It's just that they can't immediately start using the money. They have to go through criminal proceedings first. That restores the concept of innocent until proven guilty. I mean, that's a fundamental American promise, that you have rights that are intrinsic to you by your very nature as a human being. We recognize that as a country. That's an American promise. We break that promise when we engage in this type of activity."
Jason Pye, vice president of legislative affairs at the limited-government advocacy group FreedomWorks, says Turner's bill "restores due process and protects innocent individuals whose property may be seized by requiring a criminal conviction."
"Georgia took a step in the right direction a couple of years ago with the passage of HB 233," Pye says. "Still, that law is lacking in protections. Property can still be permanently seized by law enforcement based on a low evidentiary standard, without ever arresting, charging or convicting the owner of a crime. As someone who works on this issue, this is standard law enforcement should have to meet. As a Georgian, it's time for my state to get on the right side of the issue."
Even with bipartisan support, Turner says getting his law passed will still be a heavy lift. Law enforcement groups like the Georgia Sheriffs Association, whose membership can make or break local politicians, have opposed restrictions on asset forfeiture. Turner vividly remembers watching sheriffs from around Georgia file into the statehouse visitors gallery to watch the legislature debate the 2015 bill.
Are there instances where asset seizures are necessary? Yes. But the current system in many states has made seizure an enforcement mechanism of choice for departments looking to pad their budgets. Putting due process restrictions back in place is the right thing to do, acting as a curb on the unscrupulous, and a (constitutional) protection for the innocent.