Law-enforcement agencies shouldn’t be able, under the color of law, to appropriate an innocent person’s possessions — a nice car, cash in their wallet, their house — and then use it to enrich the agency.
But this is happening in Ohio and across the nation.
It’s called “civil-asset forfeiture.” Intended to stymie drug cartels and organized crime by stripping away their assets and infrastructure, it has become grossly misused by zealous law-enforcement officers.
The situation is so outrageous that it has united an unlikely coalition of conservatives and progressive groups; “Fix Forfeiture” launched its push for legislative reform in late June, targeting three states viewed as key to beginning national change. With bills now making their way through the Michigan and Pennsylvania legislatures, attention has turned to Ohio, where Rep. Tom Brinkman, R-Cincinnati, expects to introduce a bill within weeks.
“Ohio is a very relevant state: As goes Ohio, so goes the nation,” said Holly Harris, executive director of Fix Forfeiture. “It should never be enough that an agent of the government can say ‘You look guilty, therefore I’m going to take your property.’ That’s crazy.”
Record-keeping is patchy, which is part of the problem. But it appears Ohio reaps an average of $9.2 million a year in forfeited assets under a sharing arrangement with the feds, according to data gleaned from public records by an Institute for Justice report in 2010.
Properly governed, civil asset forfeiture might be a valuable policing tool. But horror stories of its abuse blaze across the Web. A sampling:
In Feb. 2014, college student Charles Clarke was flying back to Florida after visiting family in Cincinnati. Worried about losing $11,000 in his life savings, family gifts and financial aid, he kept it where he thought it would be safest: On him. He didn’t count on being robbed by law enforcement.
Drug Enforcement Administration task force officers at the Cincinnati airport confiscated the money, though a search of Clarke found no drugs or contraband. Even as Clarke fights to get back his money, it is reported that more than a dozen police agencies are lining up for a cut of his cash. Among them: the State Highway Patrol and Ohio attorney general’s office.
Clarke was never charged with a crime.
In 2013, Montana troopers seized $16,000 from a farmer who had saved to buy tractor parts. He, too, was never criminally charged, but the state put the money toward its first canine unit.
Earlier this year, the Philadelphia district attorney’s office finally dropped outrageous demands in a case against a family whose $350,000 family home was confiscated last year after a son had been arrested for selling $40 worth of heroin.
The civil-asset forfeiture tactic is misused to seize property unrelated to a crime, or for crimes that are so minor or lacking in evidence that they aren’t prosecuted. If people want their property back, they must hire a lawyer and prove their innocence, upending the American justice system’s presumption of innocence.
An Ohio law should require a conviction before seizing property. It should insist on proportionality; property seized should relate to the crime. It should require record-keeping and public reporting. And it should remove any financial incentive for law enforcement. The Ohio legislature should put an end to state-sanctioned theft.