Local police and prosecutors have the authority to take cash, cars, homes, and private citizens without a court convicting those citizens of any crime. In some cases, they take these things without even charging those citizens with a crime. After seizing property authorities sell the goods and keep the proceeds for themselves.
Thirty years ago lawmakers enacted civil asset forfeiture, during the failed war on drugs. The idea was that drug dealers shouldn't keep lavish homes fancy cars and expensive jewelry purchase with drug money. Like many aspects of the drug war, the flaws in asset forfeiture are now painfully obvious.
First, the system is intentionally biased. Unlike criminal cases, seized property is guilty until proven innocent. Citizens, not the government, have the burden of proof. In other words, when police seize your property they keep until you prove that you earned it legitimately. Also, if a citizen waits too long to dispute the seizure, the government automatically wins and keeps the property.
Next, Virginia is worse than most states. In 2010, the Libertarian Institute for Justice produced a report that investigated property seizure abuse by law enforcement agencies. The report gave Virginia a D-minus. It concluded that “Virginia’s civil forfeiture laws utterly fail to protect property owners,”
Third, people usually can't fight forfeiture cases. Nationally the thousands of cash seizures on the nation’s highways in recent years funneled $1.7 billion to state and local agencies and an additional $800 million to the feds. Only one in six seizures was challenged. 40 percent of the challenges took more than a year to resolve. Prosecutors tie asset seizure cases up with lengthy trials and pleadings that are costly to defend. The math is simple and authorities know it. If police seize $2000, a citizen can spend twice that in legal fees trying to win back the money.
Finally, the system is misguided. Some police have actually turned this process into a social networking game. A private firm set up a police network called "Black Asphalt" that lets officers share detailed reports about American motorists including their Social Security numbers, addresses. Not surprisingly police officers on the network have started to compete to see who can seize the most cash.
The abuse has gotten so bad that two of the law officers that created the program are now calling for asset forfeiture to end. Earlier this year two Justice Department Asset Forfeiture officers ran an op/ed in the Washington Post titled “Kill the Program We Helped Start” They now admit that civil asset forfeiture and money-laundering laws are "gross perversions of the status of the government." If your property is seized pursuant to one of these laws remember that you can fight. I encourage anyone who has had their property taken by a government officer to contest the process in court. A good legal defense can keep the police from abusing your rights.