Imagine you are driving home from work one day and are stopped and your car and personal belongings are taken. While this alone is a terrifying thought, it is more horrific when you realize that it isn’t a criminal that is taking your belongings but it’s an officer of the law. Unfortunately, this isn’t just a story, but a real practice called civil asset forfeiture that impacts countless Louisianans.
Civil asset forfeiture laws allow the government to seize and take title to personal property without charging or convicting the property owner of a crime. Louisiana’s forfeiture laws come up short of the freedoms we should be guaranteed.
If a property owner is acquitted of a crime, they could still lose their property because the state separates the forfeiture from the criminal trial process. Further, the standard of proof for civil forfeiture is lower than “beyond a reasonable doubt,” giving the government more latitude to take one's property with relative ease. As Louisiana fell behind in protecting individual liberty, four states have replaced civil forfeiture with criminal forfeiture and 32 states changed their laws to remove some of the more problematic components of civil forfeiture.
The Pelican Institute’s newly released report found that from 2000 to 2020, the government seized a yearly average of almost $9 million in assets – totaling over $186 million over two decades. Furthermore, the state’s lackluster reporting standards spell a real mystery for uncovering just how much of this property was acquired with a corresponding criminal conviction.
The property that is seized is disbursed between local law enforcement agencies. Sixty percent goes to the seizing law enforcement agency, 20% goes to district attorney’s offices involved in the forfeiture, and another 20% goes to the criminal court fund. Since courts, district attorneys, and law enforcement get a portion of what is seized, an incentive has been created that encourages more of this seizure of private property. Further, the cost of retaining legal counsel often exceeds the value of property seized, making it a fruitless endeavor to contest a forfeiture even when innocent.
Proponents of civil asset forfeiture believe it’s fundamental to fighting and discouraging crime. There’s some truth to this. Criminals like drug dealers and human smugglers should be deprived of their ill-gotten gains. There are rare circumstances when the accused reside outside of the jurisdiction of Louisiana courts and civil forfeitures may be a necessity to compel cooperation. However, there’s no reason to handle this outside the criminal process for everyday Louisianans and Americans that can be extradited and held to account.
The Pelican Institute’s report outlines several ways to rein in the practice of civil asset forfeiture in Louisiana. For example, switching to criminal forfeiture and requiring a conviction for the accused party would be just as effective as civil forfeiture while offering more protection for the innocent and falsely accused. Also, setting a minimum value for property eligible to be seized would help protect low-income property owners. Another solution is putting all forfeiture-related funds into a neutral account such as the state general fund or education fund, removing any incentive to engage in for-profit policing. Solutions like these would allow law enforcement to continue their duties without infringing on the rights of Louisianans.
Louisianans have a right to the security of their persons and property. Unfortunately, Louisiana’s current status quo of civil asset forfeiture runs afoul of the core values of a free society. The government should protect life, liberty, and property – not threaten it. Burdening private citizens with petitioning the state for the return of their possessions goes against the core purpose of the presumption of innocence.