If you get arrested for a crime, police have the ability to confiscate any property of yours that they claim was related to the crime you're being arrested for. This is called civil forfeiture. It was first used as a police tactic back in the “war on drugs” in the 1980s as a way for police to deal with large-scale drug trafficking rings. However, in the past years it has been blown way out of proportion, with law enforcement on the local and federal levels using civil forfeiture to make millions of dollars.
Now, members of Congress are finally moving to put an end to it.
In theory, civil forfeiture allows police to hamstring large-scale criminal activities by taking their stuff once the police start making arrests, even if those arrests are low on the organization's totem pole. By seizing the equipment that criminal rings use to commit crimes, police could do more to put them out of business.
In practice, though, police departments use civil forfeiture to pad their budget. By seizing any and all property that can even remotely be tied to the crime they're investigating, police can impound cash and lots of valuable items that they then sell off in forfeiture sales. If state forfeiture laws allow it, these funds then get funneled back into the department. If the state's laws don't allow it, then the property gets passed to the federal government through “equitable sharing.” Once there, federal law applies, and allows the local police force to profit, anyway.
The reality of civil forfeiture is police abuse. Officers make arrests on only the weakest probable cause, seize everything they possibly can, and let the “suspect” go without a charge. Investigative reporting by Investigative reporting by The New Yorkerfound the practice shockingly widespread.
New Bill Would Combat Civil Forfeiture
Finally, Congress has taken note of the practice, and is moving to put an end to it. A bill backed by numerous organizations, including the American Civil Liberties' Union (ACLU), has been proposed that would end equitable sharing, preventing local law enforcement agencies from running around their own state laws. It would also provide indigent defense for people in civil forfeiture cases, and makes it far more difficult for the government to show that the property was legitimately seized.
Maine Criminal Defense Attorney William T. Bly
Civil forfeiture is one of the many collateral consequences of a crime. However, unlike many other collateral consequences, civil forfeiture does not happen after a conviction. Instead, it has allowed property to be seized long before prosecutors have even started putting their case together, and has made it an uphill struggle to get it back.
This new bill would change that. Civil forfeiture, if it was ever useful, has long overcome its value, and has been responsible for countless headaches and financial strain on innocent Americans.
If you have been arrested for a crime in the state of Maine and have had your property seized by law enforcement, reach out to the law office of criminal defense attorney William T. Bly by calling his law office at (207) 571-8146 or contacting him online.