When you tell people who know little of our criminal justice system about civil asset forfeiture, they often don’t believe you. And it isn’t difficult to see why. It’s a practice so contrary to a basic sense of justice and fairness that you want to believe someone is pulling your leg, or at least exaggerating.
No exaggeration is necessary. Civil asset forfeiture is based on the premise that a piece of property can be guilty of a crime. Under the theory, if the police suspect that cash, a car, a house or even a business was obtained through proceeds of a crime (usually a drug crime), or was in any way connected to the commission of a crime, they can seize said property. The burden then falls on the property’s owner to prove that they either acquired it legally, weren’t using it in the commission of a crime, or that someone else used it illegally without the owner’s knowledge (though not all states offer the “innocent owner” defense).
In many instances, not only is the owner required to prove a negative, but the process also can be prohibitively expensive. In most cases, the owner is never charged with a crime, much less convicted, yet the police agency gets to keep some or all of any cash seized, and some or all of whatever a house, car or other item earns at auction. In some states, the prosecutor’s office gets a portion, too. In others, civil forfeiture cases are contracted to private law firms, which get to keep a cut of whatever they win in court.