by Mitch Kokai
Senior Political Analyst, John Locke Foundation
George Leef’s latest Forbes column urges the abolition of an egregious form of “legal plunder.”
One of the greatest political philosophers, Frederic Bastiat, wrote that the law should exist to protect life, liberty, and property, but unfortunately is often perverted into a means of “legal plunder.” In other words, the law is used to legitimize the use of force to deprive people of their wealth.
A recent Washington Post article Stop and Seize shines a light on actions by police that perfectly exemplify the sort of abuse Monsieur Bastiat warned about. In it, readers learn how police forces across the country exploit civil asset forfeiture laws to deprive hapless, innocent people of cash and other property.
What civil asset forfeiture amounts to is seizing property from someone on suspicion that it was in some way connected with a crime. The individual need not ever be convicted or even charged, but won’t get the property back without going through legal procedures which place the burden of proving innocence on him. …
… Even in the few states where state law effectively shields citizens against expropriation (and if you’re wondering, the Institute for Justice’s study Policing for Profit, grades the states on that; only Maine, North Dakota, and Vermont are very good), police can avail themselves of a federal program known as Equitable Sharing.
Between the federal law and state laws that make forfeiture easy and lucrative, we have a horrible incentive for government officials (and not just police) to enrich themselves at the expense of honest people who can’t fight the system.
Officials say that civil asset forfeitures help them fight crime and the drug war in particular. Whether or not that is true is beside the point when innocent people are deprived of property without due process of law. Those who enforce the law must be constrained by the rule of law.