How much do you know about civil asset forfeiture? It's state-sponsored theft. Police can legally steal your money and property. You need to know your rights. Civil asset forfeiture ("civil forfeiture" for short), allows law enforcement agencies to seize and keep property suspected of involvement in criminal activity. This “policing for profit” is happening all across America and, unfortunately, Oklahoma’s civil forfeiture laws and practices make it among the worst abusers in the nation.
“If the government becomes a lawbreaker, it breeds contempt for law; it invites every man to become a law unto himself; it invites anarchy.”
- Justice Louis D. Brandeis, 1928
What is Civil Asset Forfeiture?
Civil forfeiture allows law enforcement and prosecutors’ offices to seize private property—often without ever charging the owners with a crime, much less convicting them of one— then they keep or sell what they’ve taken and use the profits to fund their budgets.
In 2012, Police Chief Ken Burton from Columbia, Missouri, said, "There's some limitations on it [use of forfeiture funds]... actually there's not really. We just usually base it on something that would be nice to have but we can't get it in the budget. It's like pennies from heaven." Watch the full video here.
Civil asset forfeiture is one of the worst exploitation of property rights in our nation today.
What is Criminal Forfeiture?
Criminal forfeiture is when the government takes one’s property following a criminal conviction. Criminal forfeiture cases are against the person whose property the government is attempting to take. This means that the person accused is afforded all of the rights afforded under the U.S. Constitution, including the right to have an attorney provided if they cannot afford one. At the same time, the government must prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the person whose property they are trying to take is guilty of the underlying offense.
What Are the Differences Between Civil Forfeiture & Criminal Forfeiture?
Civil forfeiture cases are "in rem" proceedings. This means that they are technically brought against the property itself rather than its owner. Yes-- in civil forfeiture, your possessions are technically on trial. Civil forfeiture cases proceed under the legal fiction that cash, cars or homes can be “guilty.”
Civil Forfeiture Cases
This leads to bizarre case names as State of Oklahoma vs. 1984 Ford Van. This legal fiction means that police and prosecutors can take and sell your cash, cars, homes or other property without having to convict you or even charge you with any wrongdoing.
Criminal Forfeiture Cases
Consequently, unlike criminal forfeiture, with civil forfeiture a property owner does not have to be found guilty of a crime—or even charged with one—to permanently lose their property. In the United States, you are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but civil forfeiture turns that principle upside down. With civil forfeiture, your property is guilty until you prove it innocent. Civil forfeiture cases are technically civil actions, so property owners receive few, if any, of the protections that criminal defendants enjoy.
Forfeiture Laws in Oklahoma
To forfeit property in civil proceedings in Oklahoma, the government only has to show that property is related to a crime and subject to forfeiture by a preponderance of the evidence (i.e., more likely than not). In all civil forfeitures in Oklahoma, owners are presumed guilty and must contest forfeiture by proving they did not know property was being used illegally. Fighting back means having to pay for a lawyer - which is often not in the budget - or go it alone. By stacking the legal deck against property owners and incentivizing forfeiture, civil forfeiture policies encourage policing for profit rather than the pursuit of the evenhanded administration of justice.
There is no doubt civil forfeiture statutes grant law enforcement significant financial incentives to seize property. In Oklahoma, when law enforcement agencies take and sell your property, they are authorized to keep 100 percent of the proceeds for their own use. This direct financial incentive to police for profit causes law enforcement to seize and forfeit as much property as possible. Furthermore, law enforcement agencies in Oklahoma are only compelled to maintain an inventory of seized/forfeited property, providing insufficient transparency to citizens and politicians alike.
What Can Be Done to End Policing for Profit?
First, it should be required that people are convicted before law enforcement is allowed to take their property. Of course, genuine criminals could still be prosecuted and forfeit their ill-gotten gains—but the rights of innocent property owners would be protected. Second, law enforcement and prosecutors should not be paid on commission. To end this corruption-inducing profit incentive, forfeiture revenue should be placed in a neutral fund, such as the State’s general fund. Lastly, all forfeiture should be tracked and openly reported so law enforcement is held publicly accountable.
It’s time to end this State-sanctioned theft, known as civil asset forfeiture. No one should lose their property without being convicted of a crime, and law enforcement should not be incentivized to profit by stealing property from often innocent property owners.
Want to Learn More About Civil Forfeiture?
Check out this video, "Civil Forfeiture: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver (HBO)".