February 25, 2021

Can government really take away property from an innocent person—someone who hasn’t been even accused of a crime, let alone convicted of one? Shockingly, it’s a common occurrence across the country—where government seizes and auctions off an innocent person’s property and keeps the profits for themselves.

It’s a practice known as civil asset forfeiture, and in a Goldwater Institute webinar on Wednesday, Goldwater President and CEO Victor Riches and Paul Avelar, Managing Attorney of the Institute for Justice’s Arizona office, discussed this big nationwide problem that’s causing many innocent Americans to suffer—and how Goldwater is standing up for those unfairly targeted by this form of government theft.

Under civil asset forfeiture, Avelar explained, the government can take and keep cash, cars, homes and other property that is alleged to have a link to a crime—that the property was used or will be used to commit a crime, or that it came from the proceeds of a crime. Designed to prosecute pirates and crime syndicates, civil asset forfeiture has grown far bigger than that. The Institute for Justice finds that “since 2000, states and the federal government forfeited a combined total of at least $68.8 billion.” In Arizona, Avelar said, around half a billion dollars of property was forfeited between Fiscal Years 2000 and 2019—with $24 million of that coming in FY 2019 alone.

And it’s not crime lords who are the main targets anymore: Rather, it’s average Americans—often those who are not even accused of committing any crime—who are bearing the brunt of civil asset forfeiture. Frequently, Riches and Avelar said, the effects of asset forfeiture hit low-income Americans and people of color especially hard. Nationally, the average value of forfeited property is under $1,300, so hiring an attorney frequently costs more than the value of the property a person is trying to get back, so it makes more financial sense to give up rather than fight back. And furthermore, governments give people very short windows of time to contest a forfeiture. As Avelar said, when it comes to civil asset forfeiture, “there is a thumb on the scale in favor of the government from day one.”

Civil asset forfeiture is an unfair and unconstitutional practice—and the Goldwater Institute is working to stop it. For instance, last year, the Goldwater Institute stood up for Tucson handyman Kevin McBride: The government seized Kevin’s Jeep after the police claimed his girlfriend sold $25 worth of marijuana—and then they demanded he pay $1,900 to get it returned to him. The Goldwater Institute threatened to sue the government, but before we even had to step foot in court, the government gave the Jeep back.

In another Arizona case, Luis Garcia, a contractor with the Univision television network, collected $5,300 to support a youth soccer tournament, but when the Scottsdale Police Department raided his Mesa home—based on an investigation into Luis’s adult son—the charity money was wrongfully seized. Luis had never been charged with—or even suspected of being connected to—a crime. The Goldwater Institute got involved, and Luis’s money was returned soon after.

And we’re also working to halt the practice through legislative means: Goldwater is currently working to reform Arizona’s law so that a conviction would be required to take a person’s property, with our sights set on bringing similar reforms to more states in the near future.

You can learn more about the litigation and legislative reform efforts happening across the country to stop this form of government theft by watching the full webinar above. And to learn more about Goldwater’s ongoing work to stop civil asset forfeiture, click here.

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