In March, a Philadelphia man answered his door to find law enforcement holding a warrant for the arrest of his 22-year-old son. According to WPTZ.com, the young man was charged with selling $40 worth of heroin out of his parents’ home. Six weeks later, authorities returned and seized the couple’s home, leaving them and their children out on the street. According to law enforcement, the home is part of a pending investigation – the young man has not been convicted of the crime.
Seizing property is a common approach taken by federal and local law enforcement agencies in Minnesota and across the nation as a deterrent against drug crimes. The Legal Information Institute at Cornell University points out, however, that while law enforcement agencies claim this policy enables them to hit large drug operations where it is most likely to hurt, there are concerns that law enforcement is taking it too far.
Seizure and minor crimes
Evidence suggests that law enforcement regularly use the policy to take money or assets when someone is accused of committing even a minor crime, such as with the Philadelphia family. The Minnesota state auditor notes that the state collected $30 million in such assets in 2010. Furthermore, a recent report in The Washington Post notes that since Sept. 11, 2001, cash seizures through civil forfeiture that lacked an indictment or a warrant have totaled more than $2.5 billion nationwide.
Claims have been made that law enforcement is using the policy as a money maker for their departments and municipalities. Indeed, internet chats show that police often compete with each other to see who can seize the most cash and valuables from drivers on the road who are charged with crimes such as possession of marijuana, not from people who are suspected of running a drug operation.
As these agencies gain, the practice can have a devastating effect on property owners and their families. These effects include the following:
- Civil forfeiture is often viewed as a violation of rights; people must prove their innocence to regain their property rather than the state having to prove their guilt.
- People who are not even linked to the crime can suffer through losing their homes, their money and other valuable items.
- When people’s assets are seized publicly, it can damage their reputation and their relationships.
- Victims of forfeiture often have to spend additional funds in lawsuits to have their property returned to them.
The Washington Post also points out that property is often taken unnecessarily, as the government returned assets in nearly half of all situations in which the property owner challenged the seizure.