Opponents of civil forfeiture — myself included — have been waiting for someone to take the other side of the debate. Every year, the federal government uses civil forfeiture to seize more than $1 billion dollars in private property simply by alleging it was somehow involved in a crime.
That changed at a recent hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee, when civil forfeiture finally found a voice in GOP Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama. Now we know what a full-throated defense of civil forfeiture sounds like.
And that defense is unconvincing.
It’s not hard to see why champions of civil forfeiture are difficult to find. Consider the case of Russ Caswell, who testified at the recent Senate hearing. The government invoked civil forfeiture to take his family-owned motel, not because he did something wrong, but because some customers violated the law in the privacy of their own rooms. Caswell was forced to prove his own innocence to prevent the forfeiture of his business, which also happened to be his life-savings and retirement plan, all rolled into one.
Few are willing to go on record defending a practice that so blatantly disregards the fundamental principle of innocent until proven guilty — to say nothing of the right to private property.
Enter Sessions. Midway through the committee hearing, he declared that he was “very unhappy” with criticism of civil forfeiture, because in his view “taking and seizing and forfeiting, through a government judicial process, illegal gains from criminal enterprises is not wrong.” Apparently drawing a number from thin air, Sessions announced “95 percent” of forfeitures involve people who have “done nothing in their lives but sell dope.”
Now, nobody disputes that government needs the power to punish criminal behavior. But first things first: Before government labels someone a “criminal,” it has to secure a criminal conviction. The fact of the matter is, we have no way to know what portion of civil forfeitures involve genuine “criminals,” as the whole point of civil forfeiture is that government can take property without convicting or even charging anyone with a crime.