Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Your Car and Home: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

One perversion of our civil liberties spawned by War on Drugs has been an enormous expansion of civil forfeiture:

Every year, police agencies seize more than $1 billion of cars, cash and other goods linked to drug crimes. The Supreme Court will hear arguments Wednesday on how hard it should be for owners to try to recover that property.

Police typically get to keep much of what they seize, although owners can fight forfeiture in court. On Wednesday, the central issue will be whether owners are entitled to a prompt, informal hearing to argue that they should get their property back while waiting for a formal forfeiture proceeding that could be scheduled months or years in the future. At present, some states impound the property during that lag time and provide owners no recourse. Critics say many innocent owners just give up during that period, and states then are free to sell their cars and other items.

The practice of seizing property that might have been used in a crime, even when an arrest of the person is never made, would seem to fly in the face of the presumption of innocence. Courts have reasoned, however, that this presumption applies only to your person, so police can seize your property by just asserting the property's "guilt," and force you to prove otherwise.

This distinction is of course absurd. By seizing your property, police and prosecutors can force you out of your home, take over your place of business, and freeze any financial assets you might use to hire a lawyer. This obviously stacks the deck against your ability to prove your innocence.

The best way to eliminate this outrage is to legalize drugs. A less satisfying, but nevertheless useful step, would be for the Supreme Court to restore some element of "presumed innocence" to the civil forfeiture procedure.

15 comments:

Beau said...

Talk about guilt by association...

I agree with your post but I think your conclusion isn't very satisfying. Legalizing drugs - while it'll reduce the instances of property seizure - doesn't resolve the crucial issue that the government believes it can hamper your ability to prove your innocence by seizing or freezing your funds.

Something else I'm curious about - and I'd love to see a section about this in your book - is how drug dealers are attempting to circumvent this law. Are dealers laundering money more often now? Are they stuffing more of their money under the mattress rather than depositing it in the bank, hence reducing savings and investment? I think there are countless negative implications to personal freedom and to the economy. I'd prefer if you focused on those rather than making the blanket statement that drugs should be legalized.

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