The Supreme Court Case That Emboldened Asset Forfeiture
Article from Reason by Damon Root.
Civil asset forfeiture is one of the most destructive and flagrantly unconstitutional government practices occurring in the United States today. Under its auspices, law enforcement agencies are permitted to seize cash, cars, homes, businesses, and other property from innocent people who have been neither charged nor convicted of any underlying crime. The seized property is then either sold, with the government pocketing all or most of the proceeds, or put to use by the agency that took it. In either instance, law enforcement gets to profit from its policing. All of this occurs despite the fact that the Constitution clearly forbids both the federal government and the states from depriving any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.
How did we get here? The U.S. Supreme Court deserves its share of the blame.
In 1996 the Supreme Court issued its far-reaching decision in the case of Bennis v. Michigan. At issue was the seizure of a Pontiac automobile driven by a man named John Bennis, who was arrested in the car with a prostitute and later convicted of gross indecency. John’s wife, Tina, was joint owner of that car and, for understandable reasons, objected when the state took it away from her for a crime that she did not commit. So she went to court to stop the forfeiture proceedings, arguing, correctly, that she was perfectly innocent yet the state had deprived her of her interest in the car without even pretending to offer any sort of due process.
Unfortunately, she lost the case. Writing for the majority, Chief Justice William Rehnquist rubber-stamped the entire civil asset forfeiture racket. “An owner’s interest in property may be forfeited by reason of the use to which the property is put even though the owner did not know that it was to be put to such use,” he wrote. So much for the Due Process Clause.
Read the entire article in Reason.
Image Credit: Joe Ravi [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons