One hundred dollar bills currency
Photograph ©2016 by Brian Cohen.

State and Local Governments Cannot Raise Revenue With Civil Asset Forfeiture Fines: Supreme Court Ruling

“…the policies and procedures of civil asset forfeiture by law enforcement agencies in the United States must be revised to punish the actual criminals to whom they were intended and not be abused for the purpose of easy revenue stolen from victims under the guise of official legal activity.”

State and Local Governments Cannot Raise Revenue With Civil Asset Forfeiture Fines: Supreme Court Ruling

The paragraph you just read is how I summarized this article I wrote pertaining to civil asset forfeiture on Thursday, June 9, 2016 — and although the trend appeared to be heading in the opposite direction primarily due to an order which was issued by a now-former attorney general of the United States, a unanimous ruling issued by the Supreme Court of the United States aligned with my thoughts on the matter.

Civil asset forfeiture is a legal process in which law enforcement officers may — without permission or advance notice — seize assets from anyone who is suspected of being involved with a crime or illegal activity; and the owners of the property which is taken are not necessarily required to be charged with — or even suspected of — any wrongdoing.

Property owners who are affected by civil asset forfeiture have no recourse other than to prove their own innocence at their own time and expense in the hope of having their seized property returned to them — and the odds of that actually happening are unfairly diminished to approximately 41 percent despite their innocence.

According to this article written by Dick M. Carpenter II, Lisa Knepper, Angela C. Erickson and Jennifer McDonald for the Institute for Justice, “Civil forfeiture laws pose some of the greatest threats to property rights in the nation today, too often making it easy and lucrative for law enforcement to take and keep property—regardless of the owner’s guilt or innocence.” In that article, states are graded — and while many states were graded with a D-, North Dakota and Massachusetts received a grade of F for their civil forfeiture laws.

The Mitigation of Civil Asset Forfeiture…

Eric Holder issued two orders back in January of 2015 — when he was still attorney general of the United States — which were designed to better help protect innocent citizens.

As a result of those two orders, the Drug Enforcement Agency — which pursues the most civil asset forfeiture cases — reported that cash seizures were reduced by approximately 50 percent, according to this official review from the Office of the Inspector General of the Department of Justice of the United States.

…Reversed With Civil Asset Forfeiture Expanded by Federal Order

Despite the success of the two orders issued by Holder, Jefferson B. Sessions III issued this order on Wednesday, July 19, 2017 — after he succeeded Holder as attorney general of the United States — which revoked those two orders while simultaneously further expanded a federal forfeiture program called equitable sharing, which lawfully permitted components and agencies of the Department of Justice of the United States to forfeit all types of assets that were confiscated by state or local law enforcement.

That order became effective immediately on that day in 2017.

“Asset forfeiture is one of law enforcement’s most effective tools to reduce crime and its use should be encouraged where appropriate. To ensure that this tool is used appropriately, the Department is implementing safeguards to make certain that there is sufficient evidence of criminal activity before a federal adoption occurs, that the evidence is well documented, that our state and local law enforcement partners have appropriate training to use this tool, and that there is appropriate supervisory review of decisions to approve forfeiture.

“The Department also commits to giving individual property owners notice and an opportunity to challenge federal adoptions earlier than the law requires.”

Under the equitable sharing program, law enforcement officers of states were allowed to confiscate property and send it to federal prosecutors for forfeiture under federal law — even if state law did not permit such a procedure. State police departments were then permitted to keep up to 80 percent of the proceeds, which created a financial incentive to seize property — and in numerous incidents, take priority over protecting innocent citizens from abuse and upholding the law.

As part of the order, safeguards were purportedly promised to protect innocent property owners; but the safeguards included in the policy amount to little more than a promise by law enforcement to be more careful — the same law enforcement which potentially benefited financially from the order.

“As a law enforcement tool, civil forfeiture is worse than ineffective — it actually encourages police to focus on raising money at the expense of fighting crime”, according to this article written by 

Pertaining to civil asset forfeiture, the article claims that “surveys show 84 percent of Americans oppose it. Both the Republican and Democratic party platforms condemn it. More than 230 newspaper editorials have denounced it. And in the last three years alone, 24 states have taken steps to restrict it.”

Disagreement From the Supreme Court of the United States

Justices of the Supreme Court of the United States ruled unanimously on Wednesday, February 20, 2019 that the ban on excessive fines by the Constitution of the United States applies to state and local governments and thus limits their ability to use fines to raise revenue.

As a result of the arrest of Tyson Timbs after he sold a small amount of heroin to undercover cops for $400.00, his Land Rover vehicle — which was worth approximately $42.000.00 — was confiscated by the state of Indiana.

Although a trial court in Indiana ruled that the fine was grossly disproportionate punishment in addition to a total of $1,203.00 in other fines, a year of house detention and five years of probation, the Supreme Court of Indiana ruled that the ban on excessive fines by the Constitution of the United States does not apply to the states.

The official ruling in the case of Timbs vs. Indiana from the Supreme Court of the United States was in disagreement with the finding by the state of Indiana, which was thus vacated. “Forfeiture of the Land Rover, the court determined, would be grossly disproportionate to the gravity of Timbs’s offense,” according to what Ruth Bader Ginsburg — who is one of the justices of the Supreme Court — wrote in the ruling while citing the Bill of Rights. “Protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history for good reason: Such fines undermine other liberties.”


Even though a ruling issued from the Supreme Court of the United States cites the Constitution of the United States in its opposition to the practice of law enforcement departments imposing excessive fines on anyone — regardless of the reason — you still may want to consider following this advice: you will most likely not be a target of abuse of civil asset forfeiture — which does have the possibility of occurring during your travels — but one way to obviously attempt to avoid that from happening to you is to simply not commit a crime, infraction or violation of the law…

…and even that may not be enough to stop a rogue law enforcement officer from committing an act which is equivalent to legally stealing property from you.

As I advised in this recent article pertaining to 14 Tips on How You Can Prevent Theft in Hotels and Aboard Airplanes, “If you can, separate your valuables — such as cash or jewelry — and do not keep them consolidated in one place. This way, if anything is stolen, the chances of all of your valuable items being stoled are decreased. Better yet, never carry any item which you cannot bear to lose — rather, leave it secured at home.” This is the single best way to prevent theft — whether illegally by a criminal or legally by a corrupt law enforcement officer.

Photograph ©2016 by Brian Cohen.

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