Just How Draconian Are Federal Civil Asset Forfeiture Laws?

A few weeks back, our blog discussed how lawmakers here in Michigan were currently considering a package of bills designed to make the civil asset forfeiture process more equitable.

As encouraging as this is, it's important to consider that civil asset forfeiture is also a favored tool of federal law enforcement agencies, particularly the Drug Enforcement Administration, which used it to seize more than $38 million in cash and goods during the first few months of 2015 and, more significantly, $3.9 billion in fiscal year 2014.

Consider also that federal civil asset forfeiture laws do not operate on a presumption of innocence, meaning law enforcement officials must only have a suspicion that a person is somehow engaged in some type of illegal activity in order to confiscate their cash or other goods.

Perhaps most alarming of all, however, is the fact that this asset seizure can be accomplished absent an arrest or official filing of criminal charges, and that the burden of proof to get assets back still falls on the person from whom they were seized.

To illustrate how all this works, consider the experience of a Michigan man who recently boarded a train to Los Angeles with an envelope containing $16,000 in cash that he had raised to help fund his dream of starting a music video production company.

During a stop at the station in Albuquerque, the train was boarded by DEA agents who began questioning several passengers, including the Michigan man.

The $16,000 cash envelope was discovered during the course of a search to which the Michigan man had given his consent. However, despite explaining that he was carrying the money because of prior problems withdrawing large sums from out-of-state banks, a phone call from his mother corroborating his story, the complete absence of any incriminating evidence of drug-related activity, and no arrest or formal charges, the agents confiscated his money.

Now, the Michigan man has had to retain the services of an attorney to help him retrieve the money, which he isn't sure he will get back in full.

While former Attorney General Eric Holder indicated earlier this year that DOJ measures limiting the use of the civil asset forfeiture program were taking effect, experts have indicated that these reform efforts have had only a minor impact, covering a small number of local law enforcement agencies and leaving as much as 90 percent of federal seizures unaffected.

It remains to be seen what steps, if any, the federal government takes to address the injustice that occurs when a person has their cash or goods taken despite being neither arrested nor charged. At the very least, we can hope lawmakers in our state pass the aforementioned package of civil asset forfeiture laws.

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