If you have done nothing wrong, should law enforcement be able to seize your car, freeze your bank account or take other personal property from you? Like most Hoosiers, you probably said no. But that’s exactly what happens under a policy called civil asset forfeiture, which allows law enforcement to confiscate citizens’ belongings who they suspect may have been involved in a crime—even when you’ve actually done nothing wrong.
The good news is Indiana state lawmakers are reforming this practice. The state House and Senate last month passed legislation that would open a legislative study on the issue. We thank Gov. Holcomb for signing this bill into law and encourage lawmakers to move ahead with broader reforms once the study is complete.
There’s no doubt that they should. While supporters of civil asset forfeiture claim it helps police prevent criminals from using property obtained through illegal means—e.g., a stolen car, the profits from a drug sale, etc.—it just as often hurts law-abiding citizens. This is thanks to a nearly impossible standard to overcome. Rather than the American standard of “innocent until proven guilty,” civil asset forfeiture essentially assumes citizens guilty until proven innocent.
The result is money, real estate, cars, and all manner of property are taken from their rightful owners. In 2014 alone, state police claimed over $2 million of Hoosiers personal property. State Sen. Phillip Boots, a supporter of reform, put it best: “a lot of innocent people are being caught up in this forfeiture issue.”
That’s for sure. In the case of one individual from Fort Wayne, it took almost three years, court time and a mountain of paperwork to retrieve a vehicle improperly seized by police. And as recently as 2012, state police tried to seize an elderly woman’s home after her son had used it without her knowledge to commit a crime. As the woman’s lawyer noted, “My client ... would’ve been out of her home and homeless.”
Civil asset forfeiture has also received criticism from our nation’s highest court. In a recent case, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas sharply criticized civil asset forfeiture as archaic and unfair: “This system — where police can seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use — has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses.” Justice Thomas went on to note, “These forfeiture operations frequently target the poor and other groups least able to defend their interests in forfeiture proceedings.”
On that last point Justice Thomas is especially right. Citizens caught up in these proceedings must spend hundreds or thousands of dollars to hire attorneys, spend hours in court, and endure other hardships—just to get back property that rightfully belongs to them.
There’s simply no reason to keep such unjust policies in practice. The reform bill signed by the governor — HB1123, which passed the state House and Senate with bipartisan support—is a promising step toward ending this injustice. Once the study of this issue is complete, we encourage lawmakers to end this unjust practice once and for all.
Justin Stevens, Indiana state director of Americans for Prosperity.