Wednesday, January 27, 2010

"The Forfeiture Racket"

Here's another important story from Radley Balko at Reason Magazine entitled "The Forfeiture Racket." It chronicles the disturbing history of our powerful drug forfeiture laws, and how governments have seized literally billions of dollars from innocent people. Here's an excerpt:
Over the past three decades, it has become routine in the United States for state, local, and federal governments to seize the property of people who were never even charged with, much less convicted of, a crime. Nearly every year, according to Justice Department statistics, the federal government sets new records for asset forfeiture. And under many state laws, the situation is even worse: State officials can seize property without a warrant and need only show "probable cause" that the booty was connected to a drug crime in order to keep it, as opposed to the criminal standard of proof "beyond a reasonable doubt." Instead of being innocent until proven guilty, owners of seized property all too often have a heavier burden of proof than the government officials who stole their stuff.
According to Balko, the U.S. Justice Department's forfeiture fund reached $3.1 billion in 2008; less than 20 percent of seizures involved property belonging to people who were actually prosecuted.

Informants play an important role in forfeiture. Not only can the government rely on informants to meet its evidentiary burden of showing that the property is connected to criminal activity, but under federal law, informants can receive bounties of as much as 25 percent of the value of the seized assets. For an overview of U.S. informant-forfeiture practices, see Joachin Alemany, United States Contracts with Informants: An Illusory Promise?, 33 Univ. of Miami Inter-American Law Rev. 251 (2002).