Taken, published this month in The New Yorker, by Sarah Stillman, offers outsiders a heartbreaking glimpse into a little known government “public safety measure”–civil forfeiture. Civil forfeiture, in general terms, refers to government confiscation of cash and other assets that are alleged to have been gained through illegal means or were used in furtherance of some sort of criminal activity. A classic example might be the seizure of a drug lord’s home that was purchased with profits from drug sales. However, those on the inside know that civil forfeiture reaches far beyond the top ranks of the drug cartels. These statutes are being used to seize the assets of those not even accused of a crime and those who face minor criminal charges. Many individuals facing forfeiture proceedings—individuals not convicted of crimes—are poor and without the means and resources to fight administrative proceedings or a civil lawsuit riddled with bureaucratic red-tape.
The reason for the abuse of the civil forfeiture statutes are many, though it would be hard to over-estimate the impact of these forfeitures on law enforcement budgets. Many state and local law enforcement agencies rely upon the money seized to make their daily operating budgets.
Additionally, the threat of civil forfeiture often causes those accused of crimes to not fight their charges in exchange for the return of their assets, or conversely, to quit fighting for the return of their assets in exchange for the District Attorney filing lesser or no charges. For those of little means, the government’s seizure of their or their family members’ assets can be far more devastating than the threat of criminal punishment.