Paul Jacob

The “innocent until proven guilty” concept is at the very heart of our legal system. Government ought not be able to exact punishment for a crime until proof has been established, beyond a reasonable doubt, by a jury of one’s peers.

But this foundational principle of justice has been tossed out the window in recent years, at least in one realm, that of civil or asset forfeiture. Civil forfeiture allows police to seize more than $1 billion worth of property each year — cash, cars, boats, etc. — that is alleged to have been used in the furtherance of a crime.

The problem is that police don’t have to prove a crime has actually been committed in order to seize someone’s property. Or that the owner of the property committed said crime.

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And once your boat or car is stolen by your government, the burden falls to you to prove your stuff innocent.

The current practice, which has its origins in pre-republican, authoritarian law, inverts common law justice. Upside down and backwards, justice becomes its opposite: tyranny.

But it’s a profitable tyranny. Police departments are getting rich on the proceeds from all the loot they seize from folks never convicted of a crime. As the Institute for Justice argues, civil forfeiture laws provide an ugly incentive for police “to enforce the laws in ways designed to maximize forfeiture income rather than to minimize crime.”

Now a challenge has reached the U.S. Supreme Court. Alvarez v. Smith concerns six people whose money or cars were seized by Chicago police, though three of them were never charged with a crime.

The question is whether they received due process. The Illinois federal district court ruled they did. The Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals, however, reversed the lower court, and mandated a “prompt” hearing process to determine the validity of the seizure, concluding, “The point is to protect the rights of both an innocent owner and anyone else who has been deprived of property.”

Paul Jacob

Paul Jacob is President of Citizens in Charge Foundation and Citizens in Charge. His daily Common Sense commentary appears on the Web and via e-mail.