On Sunday, the HBO comedy news program “Last Night Tonight with John Oliver” took a biting yet humorous look at civil asset forfeiture – a procedure that allows police in Illinois and other states to take your property without ever convicting or even charging you with a crime.
Civil asset forfeiture allows police to take funds or property they believe to either be the proceeds of criminal activity or that facilitated a crime, be it cash, vehicles or real estate. But the problem is police can do this without proving their allegations in a court of law, without getting a warrant and even without placing anyone under arrest. As the video highlights, motorists carrying cash, family members of drug users and other innocents are far too frequently the victims of what journalist Radley Balko has called the government’s “license to steal.”
It’s a problem here in Illinois, too. The state allows police departments to keep 90 percent of the assets they seize through civil forfeiture, creating a perverse incentive to “police for profit.” And there’s no corresponding requirement that the state track how this money is used. Furthermore, an Institute for Justice study gave Illinois a D for the few protections state forfeiture law provides to innocent property owners.
Unlike a defendant in a normal criminal case, who’s considered innocent until proven guilty, property owners bear the burden of proving the innocence of their property in order to have it returned – a difficult task for many who can’t afford a lawyer to contest the seizure in court.
According to a Washington Post investigation of asset forfeiture at the federal level, only one of every six forfeitures is challenged in court.
Thankfully, asset forfeiture is starting to receive mainstream attention. It’s one of a few issues everyone across the political spectrum can oppose. Reform movements are already underway in states like Minnesota and Montana, while lawsuits challenge the practice across the country.
Hopefully Illinois will be next.