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The Real Original Purpose of Civil Asset Forfeiture

Here’s a letter to the Wall Street Journal:

Dave Erchull is correct that the current use of civil asset forfeiture is abhorrent (Letters, March 11).  The abusive misuse of this practice, however, is even worse than he realizes.

Contrary to Mr. Erchull’s claim that “the original intent of civil asset forfeiture was to combat organized crime and drug trafficking,” the original intent of civil forfeiture in fact was to punish only wrongdoers who are personally outside of the jurisdiction of the country’s courts.  Civil asset forfeiture was originally used only if and when persons suspected of criminal activities could not be arrested and brought to trial to face prosecution.  Unable to convict far-away suspected criminals, civil forfeiture created the legal fiction that these suspected-wrongdoers’ inanimate properties are the wrongdoers.  With the inanimate properties (and only these properties) being within a domestic court’s jurisdiction, these properties were then ‘charged’ at civil trials with wrongdoing.  And when found liable for wrongdoing, the properties were seized.  In this way, government punished distant criminals by at least stripping them lawfully of these properties.

Yet today civil asset forfeiture is used to seize the properties of persons who are clearly within the jurisdiction of domestic courts.  The legal fiction that the wrongdoers are inanimate properties is today used simply to save law-enforcement officials the trouble of having to win criminal convictions against suspected flesh-and-blood wrongdoers before taking their properties.  This convenience, in turn, encourages law-enforcement officials to regard far too many innocent property-owners as suspected wrongdoers.

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
George Mason University
Fairfax, VA  22030

See again my and Adam Pritchard’s 21-year-old Washington Times op-ed.


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