U.S. Supreme Court Limits Police Powers to Seize Private Property & Criminalizing Individuals without a Conviction
On February 20, the U.S. Supreme Court placed significant restrictions on the ability for law enforcement and prosecutors to seize property they seem to be in connection with crimes in a practice known as civil forfeiture. The practice has come under significant scrutiny as exposes have noted law enforcement agencies seizing significant assets under questionable circumstances around the country.
Historically, the practice has effectively turned innocent people into criminal defendants without bringing any actual charges or securing convictions. The burden is then on the property owner to prove that the property was not used in the commission of a crime.
Civil Forfeiture & Scandal
Although there are no general statistics kept when it comes to total assets seized in civil forfeiture, just based on joint operations between states and federal law enforcement that has been tracked by the Justice Department, in fiscal year 2018, alone, local and state agencies received an estimated $400 million in conjunction with the practice. A number of investigations have revealed that, in many of these instances, property was seized from innocent victims and/or disproportionately to the crime in accordance with the specific wish lists of law enforcement agencies.
Two examples of just how unjust the practice can be includes one elderly woman who had to fight the forfeiture of her home after drug dealers allegedly conducted transactions on her property without her knowledge, as well as one family that had their home seized after their son conducted a $40 drug sale there.
This particular case that came before the Supreme Court involved a plaintiff who had his car—a $42,000 Land Rover—seized in conjunction with pleading guilty to selling $225 of heroin. He was sentenced to one year of house arrest, five years of probation, and had already paid $1,200 in fines.
The justices unanimously decided that not only does the Eighth Amendment limit the ability for the federal government to impose “excessive fines,” including the seizure of property, but the 14th Amendment applies this same rule to the state governments. Excessive fines not only undermine our constitutional liberties, but can also be used to chill speech and otherwise rob power from particular groups or individuals.
While the decision does not halt the practice of civil forfeiture in general, nor does it require that police first secure a conviction against someone before seizing property from them, it does now allow individuals whose property is seized in the practice of civil forfeiture to challenge this seizure as being excessive. In other words, the decision has cleared the way for state courts to more closely scrutinize civil forfeitures. Specifically, Justice Ginsburg stated that a penalty worth more than four times the maximum monetary fines assessable against the defendant is disproportionate to the offense.
Contact Our North Carolina Criminal Defense Attorneys to Find Out More
If you live in North Carolina and have been victimized as a criminal defendant or the victim of civil forfeiture, contact our experienced North Carolina criminal defense attorneys at Dysart Willis today to find out how we can help.