Civil Forfeiture: More Safeguards Needed to Protect the Innocent


Civil forfeiture is a legal fiction premised on two notions: that (i) property bears guilt when put to unlawful use; and (ii) monarchs are the creator’s appointed representatives on the earth. In such a world, it would make sense for guilty property to be seized and returned to the monarch. In the monarch’s hands, stained property can be washed clean and repurposed for noble use. But that is not real life.

In real life, it is not so simple. Significant challenges have been made to the procedures that local and state governments use in seizing property. See, e.g., Alvarez v. Smith, 130 S. Ct. 576 (2009), which involved a challenge to the warrantless seizure of cash and automobiles purportedly used to facilitate a drug crime. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit had held that the Illinois statutory procedures “show insufficient concern for the due process right of the plaintiffs,” but the U.S. Supreme Court dismissed the case as moot.

Recently, columnist John Stossel argued in the Boston Herald that civil forfeiture is “government grand theft auto” because in most states, police and prosecutors are allowed to keep for their own use all or most of the property that they seize.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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