There’s an under-the-radar fight brewing in Washington, D.C., and in states across the nation. The debate concerns when law enforcement can take private property from citizens via a process known as civil forfeiture.
In most states, law enforcement entities can take and keep assets without even charging someone with a crime. The items are usually cars or cash, but they can also be cellphones, legal weapons, houses, and more.
The dispute largely pits advocates of criminal justice reform — both conservative and liberal groups — and harmed citizens against prosecutors and law enforcement. Under Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the federal government has also increasingly been an obstacle to reform.
In concept, civil asset forfeiture is supposed to punish criminals — especially drug dealers — by taking the proceeds of illegal activity. But in practice, innocent citizens across the country are losing their property, typically without the need for law enforcement to prove any wrongdoing. The Institute for Justice, a leading group pushing forfeiture reform, has represented grocers whose savings have been forfeited to the police, a Burmese Christian rock band, second-generation hotel owners and others. All these parties suffered the loss of their assets; none were actually charged with a crime.
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