71% Of Americans Oppose Civil Asset Forfeiture. Too Bad Their Representatives Don’t Care.
Most Americans haven’t even heard of civil asset forfeiture. This is why the programs have run unchallenged for so many years. An uninformed electorate isn’t a vehicle for change. This issue is still a long way away from critical mass.
Without critical mass, there’s little chance those who profit from it will lose their power over state and federal legislatures. Forfeiture programs are under more scrutiny these days, but attempts to roll back these powers, or introduce conviction requirements, have been met with resistance from law enforcement agencies and police unions — entities whose opinions are generally respected far more than the public’s.
California’s attempt to institute a conviction requirement met with pushback from a unified front of law enforcement groups. Despite nearly unanimous support by legislators, the bill didn’t survive the law enforcement lobby’s last-minute blitz. They also had assistance from the Department of Justice, which pointed out how much money agencies would be giving up by effectively cutting off their connection with federal agencies if the bill was passed.
Meanwhile, Michigan lawmakers have gathered unanimous support of asset forfeiture reform, but are not introducing a conviction requirement. This will make the bill more palatable for law enforcement, as it only raises the bar from a “preponderance of evidence” to “clear and convincing evidence” that seized property is linked to criminal activity. It would also make it a little easier for citizens to fight for the return of seized property if not charged with any crimes.
A reform bill introduced in Texas died an unceremonious death back in April when the committee chairman refused to move the legislation along until more concessions to law enforcement interests were made. The legislator who introduced the bill refused to budge and the bill was killed off.
Virginia’s attempt to add a conviction requirement was similarly killed off by a legislative committee, despite nearly universal support from other legislators. The Senate Finance Committe claimed the State Crime Commission needed to examine the issue first, which will buy those opposed to reform at least another year to shore up their defenses.
Wyoming’s governor vetoed an asset forfeiture reform bill, claiming the seizure of property without securing convictions was “important” and “right.”
On the bright side, Montana and New Mexico have both enacted forfeiture reform. Montana introduced a conviction requirement and New Mexico went even further, eliminating civil asset forfeiture altogether. (Property can only be seized in criminal cases.)
But as for the rest of the nation, there has been little movement on asset forfeiture reform. Utah — a state that overhauled its forfeiture system 15 years ago — rolled those reforms back just as national scrutiny was increasing. A broader movement for reform seems unlikely when less than a third of the nation is even aware of these programs.
Even if awareness increases, legislators at the top end of the food chain are more interested in appeasing law enforcement agencies and prosecutors than pushing through reform bills that arrive on their desks with nearly unanimous support. Informing the electorate may put better people in office, but it won’t change the mindset that almost always believes law enforcement knows best.
This problem is compounded when the law enforcement lobby starts complaining about the budgetary shortfalls reform efforts will create. If they aren’t allowed to seize anything for any reason, they won’t be able to buy the things they want or offset the costs generated by their seizure efforts. Any state strapped for cash — and that’s most of them — will be hesitant to pick up the tab for “lost” revenue.
It all adds up to little forward motion. The public may be displeased with the status quo, but the status quo has paid off so much for so long, those with the power to motivate politicians won’t be in any hurry to give up their forfeiture programs.