Justice Thomas’s Criticism Recognizes Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture Laws

Reforms to the unconstitutional practice are necessary, says CCJR’s Pat Nolan

Washington, DC, March 14, 2017 – The American Conservative Union Foundation’s Center for Criminal Justice Reform (CCJR) expressed disappointment in the Supreme Court’s decision to refuse to hear a challenge to the case of Leonard v. Texas, and the state’s abusive civil asset forfeiture laws. 

On the other hand, we were encouraged by Justice Clarence Thomas’s strongly worded criticism of the practice as it is used today.

In Leonard v. Texas, state police seized $201,000 from the driver of a vehicle after being stopped by a state police officer for speeding. When asked about the cash, the driver claimed the money was for the purchase of a house in Texas. Nevertheless the officer seized the cash and initiated asset forfeiture proceedings because highway 59 is a reputed drug corridor. The Supreme Court chose not to accept the case, leaving the forfeiture in place.

In his dissent, Justice Thomas aired his skepticism of the practice writing: “This system—where police can seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use—has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses.”

Justice Thomas called for a wholesale review of the practice, pointing out that asset forfeiture tends to affect those who can least afford it. Thomas explained: “These forfeiture operations frequently target the poor and other groups least able to defend their interests in forfeiture proceedings. Perversely, these same groups are often the most burdened by forfeiture. They are more likely to use cash than alternative forms of payment, like credit cards, which may be less susceptible to forfeiture. And they are more likely to suffer in their daily lives while they litigate for the return of a critical item of property, such as a car or a home.”

“Thank goodness for Justice Thomas who stands as a sentinel protecting our rights as Americans,” said Pat Nolan, Director of the ACU Foundation’s Center for Criminal Justice reform. “It is outrageous that the Court’s majority allowed police to seize over $200,000 in cash without any proof of illegal activity. There is a growing movement that unites both liberals and conservatives behind efforts to require a criminal conviction before the police can seize property,” said Nolan.

Asset forfeiture was originally intended to give law enforcement an important tool in fighting the war on drugs, by allowing them to seize funds gained from illicit activity. However this practice is easily and widely abused, and consistently deprives innocent property owners of the rights to their property and due process. At the urging of ACU and other groups, a number of states have begun to rein in this abusive practice. Just recently, Ohio and Mississippi enacted important asset forfeiture reforms. CCJR works to educate states and state policy networks about the ways civil asset forfeiture law is being abused today, and what conservatives must do to limit overreach from the federal government.

For more information about civil asset forfeiture law in your state or the Center for Criminal Justice Reform please visit http://justice.acu.foundation/asset_forfeiture

 

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