What is Civil Forfeiture?
Civil Forfeiture is a legal mechanism by which the police can seize property they suspect may be involved in a crime. Here's how it works:
1) Police suspect property is involved in a crime.
2) Police take it.
That's it. That's all there is. The police state something along the lines of "My training leads me to conclude that the property is likely involved in a crime", and it's theirs.
The government then files a forfeiture suit against the property, as in "State v. Eight-thousand dollars in US Currency" or somesuch to finalize the seizure.
Why is this bad?
1) The police, in practice, have a standard for permanently seizing property that is lower than even the standard for making an arrest. The standard is essentially reasonable suspicion. The police can seize your property without even having grounds to arrest you. If they can detain you, they can seize your property.
Police commonly seize large amounts of cash on the grounds that large amounts of amounts of cash are automatically drug-related. The assertion is enough. To put it differently, if police simply find a large amount of money, they can take it. Even if you have a reason - paying cash for a car, paying off a personal loan, they can seize it.
2) The property is immediately seized.
In most cases the property is seized immediately by the police, with no court order, no notice, and no hearing. Any property, at any time, with nearly any reason can be seized and taken into police possession.
3) It's almost impossible to get it back.
The government files its motion against your property, meaning you have to come in as a third-party and attempt to prove your property's innocence.
That's right, in this proceeding it's guilty until proven innocent. You have to prove a logical impossibility, a negative, that your property is NOT related to ANY crime. Good luck!
4) Proceeds from forfeiture go to the police who seized it
Police agencies are directly enriched by forfeiture. Like thieves, what they take from others goes directly into their own pockets. Most of the time it's spent on department luxuries, like special equipment or office goodies (like a Margarita machine) or dumped into a pension fund, but sometimes, as in the case of Philadelphia, forfeiture proceeds go directly to the people conducting seizures in the form of salaries and bonuses.
Most people will justify actions that benefit them personally, that's why we don't allow judges to profit from their decisions, but here, law enforcement priorities include a financial incentive towards specific work, namely harassment and theft.
5) The Fifth Amendment doesn't count.
The whole nonsense about government charging your money with a crime is simply a side-step around the Fifth Amendment. It's a joke, of course. The cases that challenge the constitutionality of the law are almost immediately settled. Only the Institute for Justice's suit against Philadelphia, because it's an activist firm, has a chance of killing the concept nationally.
Locally, our best solution is a legislative prohibition on the practice and a ban on local police accepting any forfeiture revenue-sharing from the Federal Government. This would make Maryland a leader in police integrity and create momentum against this corrupting practice.