We’ve talked before about the Constitutional violation that is civil forfeiture. In case you don’t remember, Wikipedia defines civil forfeiture as “a controversial legal process in which law enforcement officers take assets from persons suspected of involvement with crime or illegal activity without necessarily charging the owners with wrongdoing.”
Besides the fact that civil forfeiture allows law enforcement to steal from the innocent without even an accusation of wrong-doing, the victims then have to fight with law enforcement to get their money and/or property back. And, unfortunately, this isn’t always successful, and, in those cases, the victim never has their property returned. In other words, these are incidents of outright theft at gunpoint by law enforcement. Jack Burns gives an idea of the scope of this problem:
Matt Agorist with TFTP reported, from 1998 to 2010, more than 12 billion dollars was raked in from law enforcement at all levels of government. This translated into the government taking away 600 million more dollars than all the robberies and thefts during that same period, making authorities seem more crooked than the individuals they’re trying to arrest.
And the practice isn’t limited to local law enforcement either. As we previously reported, the “DEA seized more than $4 billion in cash from people since 2007, but $3.2 billion of the seizures were never connected to any criminal charges. That figure does not even include the seizure of cars and electronics.”
Fortunately, however, the Supreme Court recently made a ruling that could turn the tide of these thefts. Burns gives the run down:
According to Forbes, “defendants, Shannon Nelson and Louis Madden, were convicted for sexual offenses and ordered to pay thousands of dollars in court costs, fees and restitution. Between her conviction and later acquittal, the state withheld $702 from Nelson’s inmate account, while Madden paid Colorado $1,977 after his conviction. When their convictions were overturned, Nelson and Madden demanded their money back.”
Colorado refused, even after the plaintiffs won in a state-level appellate court. The state, instead, insisted that if they wanted their money back, they’d have to file a claim under the Exoneration Act, forcing the defendants to once again prove their innocence to retrieve their funds. The plaintiffs appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, who sided with the citizens in a 7-1 ruling, declaring Colorado’s law unconstitutional.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote the majority opinion for the court declaring “the Exoneration Act’s scheme does not comport with the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of due process.”
Ginsburg wrote that Nelson and Madden are “entitled to be presumed innocent” and “should not be saddled with any proof burden” to reclaim what is already theirs. In other words, they shouldn’t have to demonstrate they’re not criminals after the court has already made such a determination. According to Forbes:
Ginsburg forcefully rejected Colorado’s argument that “[t]he presumption of innocence applies only at criminal trials,” and not to civil claims, as under the Exoneration Act: “Colorado may not presume a person, adjudged guilty of no crime, nonetheless guilty enough for monetary exactions.”
So, now, backed with a Supreme Court decision that money and property cannot be stolen or withheld from innocent people by law enforcement, we may now have a way to fight back against civil forfeiture’s blatant violation of the Constitution. Hopefully, this will mean a tidal wave of law suits to bring law enforcement back into check where it has overstepped its job and its boundaries.
What do you think about this Supreme Court decision: Will it lessen or stop civil forfeiture? Sound off below.