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.