What is civil forfeiture?

Civil forfeiture is a process through which the police seize – and then keep or sell – any property they allege is involved in a crime.

Let’s break that down.

First, civil forfeiture was originally presented as a way to cripple large-scale criminal enterprises. The idea being, if criminal organizations didn’t have access to their usual resources, they would be unable to conduct criminal business as usual.

Second, when police take advantage of civil forfeiture laws, they are bringing a case directly against your property. Not against an individual, just against their property. And as Scott Bullock, the senior attorney at the Institute for Justice explains in this clip, “your property is guilty until you prove it innocent.” 

Third, the property only needs to be allegedly involved in a crime. As long as “a preponderance of the evidence” suggests that the property in question was involved in a crime, the police can seize it. No arrest or conviction on the part of the owners is required for the seizure to take place. If the police determine that enough evidence exists (a standard that often takes the form of a loosely-defined, moving target that is more often defined by the financial wants and needs of police departments than it is by the evidence itself), individual’s cash, cars, or even real estate can be taken away permanently by the government.

So what is civil forfeiture? Ezekiel Edwards of the Criminal Law Reform Project says it best. It’s “legalized robbery by law enforcement.” 

Why’re we concerned?

If “legalized robbery” wasn’t enough to convince you of just how questionable of a practice civil forfeiture is, here’s a few more reasons why we’re concerned.

If your property is seized through civil asset forfeiture, it’s notoriously difficult to legally regain the property. It requires going to court and proving your property’s innocence (remember, it’s presumed guilty), and the cost associated with doing so can exceed the value of the property itself. And for individuals with limited resources, this process is can make reclaiming their property next to impossible.

But wait, there’s more. Oversight and record keeping surrounding civil forfeiture is often lax. And Maine is no exception.

The Problem in Maine

At first glance, Maine’s laws concerning civil forfeiture are quite good. Law requires the Department of Public Safety (DPS) to give quarterly reports about all assets seized through civil forfeiture to the Office of Fiscal and Program Review (OFPR). Additionally, instead of allowing seized assets to go to police departments themselves, all seized assets are required to go into a general state fund. This serves the purpose of disincentivizing police departments from abusing civil forfeiture laws by not placing them as the sole beneficiary of seized assets.

Or, at least, that’s how it’s supposed to work.

According to a Maine Beacon report, there is no record of a quarterly report of assets seized through civil forfeiture ever being submitted to OFPR.

And that’s no surprise given that Maine’s law enforcement agencies are apparently keeping the property seized in asset forfeitures, rather than depositing it in the state’s general fund as required by state law.

The same Beacon report states that a single deposit of $4,335 was made by the Department of Public Safety in 2010, but no recent proceeds from asset forfeitures have gone into the general fund.

This blatant flouting of the rules led to Maine receiving a failing grade from the Institute of Justice in regards to how well the state conforms with its civil forfeiture transparency laws.

“Maine law enforcement officials are taking money and property from people who haven’t been convicted of a crime. They are keeping that money and property for themselves. And they are failing to report it to the state,” said Oamshri Amarasingham, advocacy director at the ACLU of Maine in a December 3rd press release. “We should all be outraged. We hope our elected officials will take immediate steps to halt this shocking abuse of power.”

Still confused? Let John Oliver break it down for you.