Advocates of civil forfeiture, which allows police to take property from people who they merely suspect are involved in criminal activity, argue it’s a vital law enforcement tool while downplaying reports that the practice is routinely abused.
As to the former, whether it helps law enforcement punish the bad guys isn’t really the point, particularly when a tactic runs counter to the principles of private property and due process outlined in the U.S. Constitution.
As for the latter, it’s getting harder and harder to take seriously those who pooh-pooh the steady stream of examples that highlight law enforcement officials exploiting civil forfeiture for personal gain.
This week, a nonprofit news outfit in New York called The City revealed that Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance tapped a state forfeiture fund to spend almost a quarter-million dollars over the past five years on fancy dining, swanky hotels and first-class airfare.
“Expense reports show that in the last fiscal year alone,” The City reported, “Vance visited Washington nine times, Aspen and London twice and Paris and Los Angeles once apiece.”
In Paris, he paid more than $700 a night for lodging. In London, his five-star hotel ran almost $500 a night.
Mr. Vance’s extravagance again shines the spotlight on the dangers of “policing for profit.” When law enforcement agencies are allowed to keep a significant portion of the assets that are forfeited, it creates a perverse incentive for them to prioritize crimes that might bring the department the biggest check.
The problem is compounded by the fact that in many jurisdictions — such as New York — there are inadequate restrictions on how law enforcement may spend the loot. As a result, it’s not uncommon for police to use the money to buy fancy cars and other luxuries, pay salaries or go on expensive junkets a la Mr. Vance.
Nevada lawmakers have imposed reasonable reporting standards on forfeiture funds so the public may examine how various state agencies spend such money. That’s a start. Another safeguard would be to bypass law enforcement all together and mandate that money generated through seizures flow into the general fund.
Ultimately, however, the proper course of action is to end this dubious practice. Civil forfeiture laws empower police and prosecutors to take cars, homes, cash and other valuables from people who have never been convicted, let alone charged, with a crime. The potential for abuse is obvious — and, indeed, hundreds of egregious cases of police overreach have been well-documented across the country.
A handful of states in recent years have moved to abolish civil forfeiture. Nevada lawmakers should follow suit. No man or woman should lose property to the state without first having been convicted of a crime.
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