The Supreme Court this week is considering limiting the practice of civil forfeiture, which law enforcement has used since the War on Drugs mostly against African Americans, Hispanics and those in poor communities.
At the heart of arguments in the nation’s highest court are two questionable forfeitures.
The first occurred in October of 2016.
Alexander Temple, a Maine resident, was pulled over on Interstate 95 in New Hampshire for a routine traffic stop. Police in that state seized $46,000 from Temple, claiming they felt it would be used for illegal activity.
Even Though Temple was released without ever facing a single criminal charge, the police kept the cash.
The second is Tyson Timbs, a recovering opioid addict from Indiana who pled guilty to dealing drugs in 2013. After he was sentenced to probation and ordered to pay a fine, the state seized his $42,000 Land Rover in an act of civil forfeiture.
That despite the fact that Timbs proved that the funds he used to purchase the SUV were not from drug sales, but from a life insurance policy he received from his father.
“I’m feeling very good,” Timbs told ABC News as he entered the High Court this week. “This has been a very difference experience for me with so much attention.”
Timbs attorney Wesley Hottot argued the seizure of the Land Rover violated the 8th Amendment’s protection against excessive fines, a Constitutional guarantee that should be upheld in all states.
A majority of the justices reportedly seemed receptive to the idea. And, if they at least limit the practice of civil forfeiture, many a minority could regain previously lost property.
Civil asset forfeiture is the ability of authorities to seize private property used in a crime. However, most legal experts agree that the practice has enriched states and law enforcement and usually the forfeitures occur without a court hearing.
In the 26 states and District of Columbia that report forfeiture activity, law enforcement agencies collected more than $254 million in funds and property in 2012 alone, according to an analysis by the Institute for Justice, a non-profit libertarian public interest law firm.
“This is an incredibly important case,” said Christopher Riano, lecturer in constitutional law and government at Columbia University, told ABC News.
“Historically, whenever the court takes these types of cases, the court does usually move to incorporate the federal guarantees against the states.”
The Southern Poverty Law Center reported that, since the advent of the War on Drugs, law enforcement agencies have used civil asset forfeiture laws to strip Americans of billions of dollars in cash, cars, real estate, and other assets.
Under these state and federal laws, officers are legally empowered to seize property they believe is connected to criminal activity – even if the owner is never charged with a crime.
In most states, the agencies are entitled to keep the property or, more typically, the proceeds from its sale.
An analysis by the Southern Poverty Law Centerfound that while federal forfeitures totaled $93.7 million in 1986, this revenue grew by more than 4,600 percent – to $4.5 billion a year – by 2014.
Forfeitures handled by states have also poured millions, perhaps billions, of dollars into law enforcement agencies.
As a result, there has been a massive transfer of wealth and assets from American citizens – and especially the most economically vulnerable – to police, who can largely use the funds however they see fit, the SPLC reported.
Many states do not even require local agencies to track or report seized property.
In civil forfeiture cases, as many as 80 percent of people who have their assets seized are never charged with a crime.
In most state and federal courts, the government is only required to show there is a preponderance of evidence – more likely than not – that the property abetted a criminal act.
Homes have been seized from owners whose children or grandchildren were accused of committing drug crimes, even though the owners themselves were never implicated.
In one money-laundering case in Florida, SPLC officials noted that law enforcement seized approximately $49 million but did not bring a single indictment.
The drug war has unduly harmed racial minorities, and its civil forfeiture provisions are no different, according to the SPCL.
Because of racial profiling, Black and Hispanic motorists are disproportionately searched and put at risk of having their cash assets seized, even though Black and white drivers are equally likely to be found with narcotics.
A 1993 investigation by The Orlando Sentinel revealed that nine of every 10 motorists who were stopped and stripped of their cash by police in Volusia County, Florida, were either Black or Hispanic, and three out of four were never charged with a crime.
In Philadelphia, where nearly 300 houses are seized annually, African Americans make up 44 percent of the population but 63 percent of house seizures and 71 percent of cash forfeitures unaccompanied by a conviction, according to the SPLC.
Forfeiture is also most likely to affect economically disadvantaged communities: One study found that areas with high income inequality were targeted for civil forfeiture operations, likely because these police departments have limited funding and are inclined to use forfeiture to secure needed revenue.
The profile of suspects who have their assets seized, a researcher observed, “differ greatly from those of the drug lords, for whom asset forfeiture strategies were designed.”
Now, as the Supreme Court considers the law, many like Temple and Timbs wait with great anticipation.
“For ordinary citizens, the real-world consequences can be devastating,” Timbs’ attorney argued in a brief to the Supreme Court.
“The Excessive Fines Clause secures a single, unitary right: freedom from excessive economic sanctions that are at least partly punitive.
“To be sure, that right can be violated in countless ways, using countless tools; in this regard, governments are endlessly innovative, ‘with more and more civil laws bearing more and more extravagant punishments.’”