Civil forfeiture in the US: legalised crime?

Civil forfeiture (the confiscation of private property by the government) initially targeted organised crime and illegal drug activities back in the 1970s. Little objection was raised given the nature of its targets.

Today, it’s unrecognisable. Ever since 1984 when law enforcement agencies became entitled to a share of the proceeds of such seizures, it’s morphed into an often out-of-control predation upon small fry in no position to contest their losses. States have joined in the bonanza with their own forfeiture statutes.

Sarah Stillman, in an extended New Yorker investigation, lays out the extent of the transformation and some of the efforts to rein in its more egregious excesses.

Yet only a small portion of state and local forfeiture cases target powerful entities. “There’s this myth that they’re cracking down on drug cartels and kingpins,” Lee McGrath, of the Institute for Justice, who recently co-wrote a paper on Georgia’s aggressive use of forfeiture, says. “In reality, it’s small amounts, where people aren’t entitled to a public defender, and can’t afford a lawyer, and the only rational response is to walk away from your property, because of the infeasibility of getting your money back.”

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