One of the greatest political philosophers, Frederic Bastiat, wrote that the law should exist to protect life, liberty, and property, but unfortunately is often perverted into a means of “legal plunder.” In other words, the law is used to legitimize the use of force to deprive people of their wealth.
A recent Washington Post article Stop and Seize shines a light on actions by police that perfectly exemplify the sort of abuse Monsieur Bastiat warned about. In it, readers learn how police forces across the country exploit civil asset forfeiture laws to deprive hapless, innocent people of cash and other property.
What civil asset forfeiture amounts to is seizing property from someone on suspicion that it was in some way connected with a crime. The individual need not ever be convicted or even charged, but won’t get the property back without going through legal procedures which place the burden of proving innocence on him. Just to cite one of many cases given in the Post’s story, consider the plight of Mandrel Stuart,
“a 35-year old African American owner of a small barbecue restaurant in Staunton, VA was stunned when police took $17,550 from him during a stop in 2012 for a minor traffic infraction on I-66 in Fairfax. He rejected a settlement with the government for half of his money and demanded a jury trial. He eventually got his money back, but lost his business because he didn’t have the cash to pay his overhead.”
Officials say that civil asset forfeitures help them fight crime and the drug war in particular. Whether or not that is true is beside the point when innocent people are deprived of property without due process of law. Those who enforce the law must be constrained by the rule of law.
But are the seizures under civil asset forfeiture laws a violation of due process? That was put before the Supreme Court in the 1996 case Bennis v. Michigan. That case arose when John Bennis was arrested for a tryst with a prostitute in a car that was jointly owned with his wife, Tina. Contending that the car was “guilty” too, the police seized it. Was Tina Bennis entitled to get her car back, or had the state justly deprived of her property?
By 5-4, the Court held that the seizure was not unconstitutional; that taking away Tina’s right to the vehicle did not violate her rights under the 5th and 14th Amendments. Chief Justice Rehnquist’s majority opinion rested on the claimed fact that at the time the Constitution was adopted, civil asset forfeiture laws were in existence, and therefore they must not be permissible today. Justices Stevens, Kennedy, Breyer, and Souter dissented, arguing that the majority’s history was off point and the palpable injustice of taking Mrs. Bennis’ car from her because her husband had used it in his misdemeanor was constitutionally intolerable.