Civil asset forfeiture laws, which allow the government to seize property allegedly tainted by crime without ever charging the owner, are fundamentally rigged in favor of the law enforcement agencies that get a cut of the proceeds. Even when an owner manages to challenge a forfeiture by arguing that he was not involved in any criminal activity, he has the burden of proving his innocence, and the process often costs more than the property is worth. Adding insult to injury, the government can drag out the process for so long that even innocent owners feel compelled to surrender. The Institute for Justice (I.J.) challenges that aspect of civil forfeiture in an appeal it filed this week, asking the Supreme Court to rule that due process requires a prompt post-seizure hearing.
Early civil forfeiture laws in the United States recognized the importance of that safeguard. The Collections Act of 1789, I.J. notes, required a hearing within 14 days after the government filed its forfeiture complaint, which was supposed to happen shortly after the seizure. A decade later, Congress amended the law to emphasize that forfeiture suits must be commenced “without delay.” Nowadays, by contrast, property owners routinely wait months or years before they get a chance to challenge a seizure before a neutral adjudicator.