Last week, a Federal Court actually got it right by ruling that the City of Albuquerque had been violating individuals’ constitutional rights by seizing their automobiles even though they had not been convicted of any crime. It’s called civil forfeiture…and it’s just wrong.
If anyone else took your car and refused to let you have it back until you went through an expensive legal and bureaucratic process, it would be a theft you would report to the police. But in far too many cities and states across the nation, including until recently, Albuquerque, it’s OK if the police do it themselves. In fact, it’s OK if they make money in the process. They take your stuff, dare you to prove your innocence, require fees and legal costs you might not be able to pay, and hope you give up so that they can sell your stuff and pocket the money.
Two years ago, a woman in Albuquerque let her son drive her car. He got a DWI. The police seized her car. She wasn’t charged with a crime. She wasn’t even in the car. Yet, she had to pay fees and costs and spend months proving her innocence in order to keep the City from selling her car at auction and keeping the money.
Fortunately, a Federal Judge ruled that what the City had done was unconstitutional, violating her rights to due process and creating a risk of “erroneous deprivation” of her property. In other words, he said the government can’t just take your stuff.
And he said what should be obvious: In America, you don’t have to prove your innocence. The government has to prove your guilt. Or at least that’s how it’s supposed to be.
The Albuquerque case was ironic. In 2015, New Mexico actually enacted the nation’s first state law banning civil forfeiture. The legislature did so after some particularly egregious cases of government theft came to light. Nonetheless, until earlier this year, Albuquerque refused to comply, and kept seizing cars from people who were not convicted or even charged with anything.
Sadly, this case is not unique. It happens all the time all across the nation. Texas rakes in about $40 million each year by civil forfeiture theft. And in a case reported by Reason just this week, New Hampshire and the Feds teamed up to steal $39,000 from a man without charging him with a crime. His mistake: Carrying cash in his car, which, last time I checked, isn’t a crime.
Making matters worse…much worse, our Attorney General Jeff Sessions (from Alabama, by the way) doesn’t like the fact that a number of states and municipalities, like New Mexico, are having the audacity to ban or restrict this government theft. Last year, Sessions issued “guidelines” that essentially said to local law enforcement agencies “if you are prohibited from seizing assets, no problem. We the Feds will do the seizing for you, and give you back some of the proceeds.” Laughably, except that it isn’t funny, the Sessions program is called “Equitable Sharing”.
Thieves who share are still… thieves.
Civil asset forfeiture is theft. There is no other way to put it.
It needs to stop. New Mexico got it right. At least one Federal Court got it right. States and municipalities across the nation are beginning to get it right. Our Attorney General needs to get out of the way and onto the side of the Constitution. After all, that’s his job.