Innocent Victims of California Civil Asset Forfeiture Laws
This year many states—Alabama, Arizona, North Dakota and Utah among others—have adopted legislation to limit civil asset forfeiture and government’s ability to seize private property. The Fourth Amendment ensures Americans’ rights to individual property, protecting against “unreasonable searches and seizures.” Unfortunately, civil asset forfeiture can violate these Fourth Amendment protections and also lead to unnecessary, negative interactions between law enforcement officers and citizens.
The recent raid on U.S. Private Vaults Inc. (USPV) in Beverly Hills, California is a clear example of the abusive nature of civil asset forfeiture laws. For years, the U.S. Private Vaults Inc. has “provided safety deposit boxes to customers who wanted anonymity.” However, in March of this year, these private installations were shut down after law enforcement officers seized all the safety deposit boxes under assumptions of money laundering. Even though prosecutors have acknowledged some of the customers as innocent and honest, they still have not had their belongings and property returned.
The first civil asset forfeiture laws date back to English maritime law in the 17th century, when they were used to deter piracy and smuggling, but civil asset forfeiture has progressively broadened since then. In the United States, state and local governments are now entitled to confiscate any private property if employees of certain government agencies allege the property in mention is associated with criminal activity.
Given that an individual’s property can be seized without criminal charges, these laws have contributed to mistrust between law enforcement and the communities they police. This has also led to government agencies using the asset forfeiture process to supplement their respective budgets. The ALEC models Reporting of Seizure and Forfeiture Act and the Asset Forfeiture Process and Private Property Protection Act are designed to protect the concept of “innocent until proven guilty” as a core principle of our criminal justice system. Ultimately, Americans should not be subjected to these unjust practices.