Should U.S. citizens be subjected to having their money or property seized without ever being charged with a crime, let alone convicted of one? The answer is a resounding no!  

Yet this happens every day in America. Under our current civil forfeiture laws, police and law enforcement agencies can take property with no trial, little due process and, sometimes, no warning. 


Take, for example, the recent case of a 35-year-old man who was driving in Idaho when state police stopped him and asked for permission to search his car. When he refused, they brought in a drug-sniffing dog, which they claim alerted them to the presence of drugs. That was all the evidence the police needed to search his car. Although they didn’t find any drugs, they did find $4,200 in cash, which the man had set aside to pay for his divorce lawyer. The police not only seized his money, but they also took his backpack and a cell phone.  

The man spent 14 months urging the state police to return his property. They finally returned his phone and backpack—but not the money. It turned out that they had “federalized” the seized money and sent it to the Department of Justice (DOJ) as part of the federal Equitable Sharing Program. 

At this point, the DKT Liberty Project stepped in to pay the man’s attorney's fees and enable an innocent individual—who normally would have had no chance of getting his money back—to further pursue his case.  

This case is not unique. Thousands of Americans are stopped and searched by police for minor traffic violations in what has been called “policing for profit.” This has often led to a search for drugs and seizure of anything valuable. Because civil forfeiture occurs in civil court—rather than criminal court—it is up to property owners to pay for an attorney and prove their innocence. This travesty of justice turns the rule of law on its head. 

How are police able to get away with this? They have a perverse incentive to seize money through the DOJ’s Equitable Sharing Program. This program allows state law enforcement officials to easily federalize the money. The case is then prosecuted by a U.S. attorney. The DOJ keeps 20 percent of the forfeiture proceeds and sends 80 percent back to the local police.  

If a state’s law mandates that seized money go toward education or other social programs—as some do—the Equitable Sharing Program short-circuits the state law by requiring that the money be returned to the local police department. Thus, the more the police take, the more they get.

Many—if not most—Americans cannot afford lawyers to try to get their property back. Further, the federal forfeiture laws prevent citizens from using a public defender to represent them.

Nonprofit groups, like ours and others, can only assist a small fraction of the thousands of innocent Americans who go through the nightmare of civil forfeiture. Police have been turned into robbers on the highway. This is not how America is supposed to be. 

As grim as this situation is, there is a solution to this problem: Change the forfeiture laws.

Although former Attorney General Eric HolderEric Himpton HolderOne quick asylum fix: How Garland can help domestic violence survivors First redistricting lawsuits filed by Democratic group On The Trail: Census data kicks off the biggest redistricting fight in American history MORE implemented some forfeiture policy changes, they do not go nearly far enough and can be overturned in an instant by current Attorney General Loretta Lynch.  

Right now, Congress is considering legislation to reform federal forfeiture statutes. Given the level of abuse, this is the only way to fix this injustice. This is the moment for Congress to pass real reform.

The founders of our country would be appalled at the ease with which our citizens can have their property seized. Millions of Americans are outraged at forfeiture injustice. Congress must act and act now. The forfeiture laws must be changed: Let’s seize the day and not let the government seize our personal property. 

Bushnell is program director for the DKT Liberty Project, a nonprofit public interest organization based in Washington, D.C.