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Civil Forfeiture: A Civil Rights Violation


Autry J. Pruitt


At the core of the American founding is protecting the civil rights of the people. The list of “repeated injuries and usurpations,” by King George III, as delineated in the Declaration of Independence, were never far from the minds of those who drafted the Constitution—and for good reason. They wanted a government that generally stayed out of our lives and entered into them only for good reason. But Americans today are increasingly victimized by one of the most insidious violations of civil rights the nation has witnessed.

It is called civil forfeiture: The practice by which government can seize your property and financial assets—and you only have to look like you might be up to something. Under civil forfeiture laws, the government can take your home, your business, your money—virtually anything—based on the mere suspicion of wrongdoing.

Part of the reason Americans haven’t erupted in outrage over this practice is that they cannot believe it is true; the Constitution was designed to prevent just this sort of abuse. After all, the 4th Amendment guards against unreasonable search and seizure, right? The 5th Amendment guarantees due process, doesn’t it? Isn’t the 8th Amendment supposed to prohibit excessive fines?

Tales of civil forfeiture are often met with incredulity, prompting people to check with Snopes to see if it’s actually true. Unfortunately, it is and the abuses are growing. Take the case of Jerry Shults, a Texas entrepreneur who has operated his business for nearly 45 years using the money he saved while serving in Vietnam as start-up capital. His enterprises include a variety of office and retail shopping centers, fishing lodges, and a chain of 13 retail stores that sell gifts, casual clothes and smoking accessories; a head shop, if you will.

The U.S. Department of Justice suspected his stores might be selling drugs. Shults broke no law but in June, the government seized his property, including $2.8 million in employee pension funds, his own retirement savings and other financial accounts, his cars and some floatplanes used at his Alaska fishing lodge. Uncle Sam also placed liens on 11 of his stores, his home, the home of his daughter and business partner Amy Herrig and the historic Ridglea Theater in Fort Worth, which Shults saved from the wrecking when he bought the landmark in 2010 and renovated it.

Another recent example involves Carole Hinders, a grandmother who’s run a restaurant in Spirit Lake, Iowa, for 38 years. Earlier this year, the Internal Revenue Service seized everything in her bank account—almost $33,000—for depositing restaurant proceeds in cash.

Never mind that her restaurant doesn’t take credit cards; it’s a cash-only business. Never mind that she hasn’t been charged with anything; she obeys the law and pays her taxes. The IRS just took her money because they thought she might be up to something. Turns out she’s not.

There’s more. In Philadelphia, the government has raised civil forfeiture to an art form. Authorities there seize between 300 and 500 homes and other pieces of real estate every year. Between 2002 and 2012, the city collected more than $64 million in civil forfeitures. Not to be outdone, authorities in New Mexico conduct seminars on how governments can profit from civil forfeiture.

Civil forfeiture also ties the judiciary into knots. Under American jurisprudence, defendants are presumed innocent until proven guilty. But in civil forfeiture, people are presumed guilty. The burden of proof rests with the victim, who must prove he didn’t do anything wrong, even though he hasn’t been charged with anything.

Forcing innocent citizens to essentially prove a negative before their property is returned to them approaches obscene. It’s also the primary reason most civil forfeiture targets are never able to reclaim what was taken from them; the burden of proof is too onerous, particularly for someone who lacks the wherewithal to fight back because the government took their assets.

Civil forfeiture is the stuff of third-world dictators. It has no place in free society. So far, those who are paying attention represent bi-partisan interests—Congress needs to take action by reining-in or abolishing civil forfeiture altogether.