In recent years, the public and government alike have signaled disapproval toward the contentious police practice of civil asset forfeiture, where law enforcement can seize property from private individuals—often without charging them with a crime. States have enacted reforms, and just last month, the Supreme Court issued a ruling against it.
Despite the changing tide, however, police in many parts of the country are still confiscating property without filing charges against the owner or even presenting evidence to warrant these seizures. Sheriff’s deputies in Lowndes County, Georgia, recently confiscated over half a million dollars from a motorist pulled over for erratic driving.
“In and out of lanes, just moving over the line, actually slowed down, got a very slow limit of speed on interstate, actually thought the driver might be impaired,” Sheriff Ashley Paulk told local outlet WALB News, adding that because the two men in the car looked nervous, deputies decided they would employ their K-9 unit to search the car.
All officers found was a duffel bag of $508,000 in cash. There were no drugs in the car, but according to the sheriff, the money was “wrapped the same way they wrap cocaine, the same rubber bands, the same style of wrapping.”
Paulk appeared to express certainty that the money came from drugs. “So, when you see that you know where that money’s derived from,” she said, also noting K-9s are trained to detect cash. “The dogs, they’ll also alert on a large quantity of money like that, not just cause it’s money but because it has drugs attached to it.”
However, no drug charges have been filed. The men in the car have received only traffic violations, though Paulk says the investigation remains open.
Asset Foreiture Violates The Eighth Amendment
The recent traffic stop and subsequent asset forfeiture is a common occurrence.
According to a Department of Justice Inspector General report, between 2007 and 2017, the DEA alone seized $3.2 billion from individuals who were not charged with a crime. Cash seizures without charges made up 81 percent of the funds analyzed in that report.
Beyond the DEA, law enforcement agencies around the country generate millions of dollars per year through civil asset forfeiture and are often allowed to keep or sell the property they confiscate. Utah police seized $2.1 million in 2017, and an overwhelming majority of the cases—96 percent—were drug-related, reflecting the widespread ramifications of the decades-long War on Drugs (proponents of civil asset forfeiture have claimed the practice is a key tool in the costly, ineffective policy).
Also in 2017, law enforcement and prosecutors in Texas “grew their coffers more than $50 million by seizing cash, cars, jewelry, clothing, art and other property they claimed were linked to a crime,” the Texas Tribune noted last year, explaining that the Texas Attorney General’s Office does not distinguish between criminal asset forfeiture, which requires a suspect to be found guilty of a crime, and civil asset forfeiture, where authorities charge the seized property rather than the person who owns it.
Civil asset forfeiture practices can still overstep even if an individual hasbeen found guilty of a crime. Last month, the Supreme Court ruled that Indiana authorities violated the Eighth Amendment, which prohibits the imposition of excessive fines, when they seized a $42,000 Range Rover from a man who had pled guilty to selling heroin and paid $1,200 in fines and fees.
Many States Have Reformed Their Practice
In recent years, many states have passed legislation limiting the practice. According to the Institute for Justice (IJ), which represented Timbs in his Supreme Court case, as of 2017, 29 states had instituted some type of reform. States including Montana, Ohio, Delaware, California, Mississippi, Arizona, Iowa, and Colorado have passed at least one bill to restrain the practice. Additionally, according to IJ’s 2017 report, 15 states now require a criminal conviction for “most or all” forfeiture cases. New Mexico, North Carolina, and Nebraska have abolished the practice altogether.
Despite these encouraging reforms, they are apparently not extensive enough. Georgia, for example, was listed as a state that has passed reform since 2014, yet deputies still seized $508,000 over traffic charges.
Some, like Sheriff Paulk, may defend the Lowndes deputies’ cash confiscation because it appears obvious that the men in the car earned the money through involvement in the narcotics trade. As Paulk said, “you know where that money’s derived from,” but the presumption of guilt flies in the face of a core American value: the presumption of innocence, a value repeatedly threatened by ongoing seizures like the one conducted by Paulk’s department.