Civil asset forfeiture allows the government to seize cash, cars, real estate, or other property suspected of being connected to criminal activity. In civil forfeiture, the property itself, rather than an individual, is believed to be connected to a crime. In fact, under federal law (as well many state laws) property can be seized and forfeited even when criminal charges are never filed against a property owner, as is the case in a staggering 80% of civil asset forfeitures. The Drug Policy Alliance has long played a leading role in forfeiture reform – calling for abolishing civil forfeiture entirely and supporting efforts to substantially reform the practice.
There is major national momentum for reform. DPA worked in New Mexico to help pass a sweeping bill in 2015 that enacted many reforms, giving the state some of the strongest protections against wrongful seizures in the country. In California, DPA partnered with the Institute for Justice and the ACLU, co-sponsoring a bill to reform asset forfeiture practices which was ultimately defeated by aggressive law enforcement opposition. The bill was introduced concurrently with a DPA report, Above the Law, a multi-year, comprehensive look at asset forfeiture abuses throughout California.
DPA has a long history of forfeiture reform efforts. Between 1996 and 2002, 10 states and the federal government enacted asset forfeiture reforms, with DPA playing an instrumental role in several of these efforts, including ballot initiatives in Utah and Oregon that prevailed by 2-to-1 margins in 2000. Most of the reforms, however, have been repealed by subsequent legislation championed by law enforcement.
DPA also played a leading role in the successful passage of the Civil Forfeiture Reform Act of 2000 in the U.S. Congress. However, this did little to stop the problem – in 2012, the federal government seized more than $4.7 billion in assets, a more than six-fold increase since 2001.
DPA is now working with legislators from both sides of the aisle, including Sen. Rand Paul, to pass the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration (FAIR) Act, which was introduced in both houses of Congress in 2015. The bill would eliminate the Department of Justice’s Equitable Sharing Program and scale back many of the worst harms of civil forfeiture.