Civil Asset Forfeiture—Still as Heinous as Ever

By Shelia Dunn, NMA Communications Director

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the Fall 2021 edition of NMA’s Driving Freedoms magazine. If you would like to receive this quarterly publication, become a member of the National Motorists Association today!

Maine has now joined an illustrious club of states that have abolished civil asset forfeiture (CAF). Unfortunately, that group includes only Nebraska, New Mexico, and North Carolina.

Even though North Carolina purports to have abolished CAF, it really hasn’t. By partnering with federal law enforcement, state and local police utilize a loophole called ‘equitable sharing.’

Institute of Justice Senior Attorney Dan Alban said in a radio interview recently, “This literally allows the police not to follow the law of their own state, and instead, follow federal forfeiture law, which is quite permissive.” The feds share 80 percent of its seized property with its local police partner. Alban adds, “That creates a pervasive incentive to police for profit.”

North Carolina law enforcement agencies have not seized a single dollar using the state program, perhaps because funds go to schools instead of law enforcement. However, working with the feds, police have seized $300 million since they began collecting assets. Nearly a hundred NC law enforcement agencies have participated yearly in the federal program.

Massachusetts lawmakers recently called for reform after a WBUR Public Radio and ProPublica investigation into Worcester County CAF practices. District Attorney Joseph Early Jr.’s office regularly waited years before notifying individuals that they had a legal right to contest the seizure of their cash and property. Between 2016 and 2019, more than 500 instances of CAF occurred in the county in which the DA failed to file court motions for confiscation for a least ten years. After the investigation was released, Early told reporters that moving forward, and his office planned to make CAF filings within two years after a corresponding criminal case had been closed.

Surprisingly enough, the state had never imposed a deadline for DA’s, allowing them to stockpile forfeiture gains even if the person had not been charged with a drug offense or the case was dismissed. In recent years, lawmakers started looking into reforming this cash cow system. In an interview, committee co-chair Jamie Eldridge stated, however, he had no idea some district attorneys delayed filings for so long.

After an eight-year legal odyssey, Indianan Tyson Timbs will finally regain his vehicle. Timbs was arrested in 2013 after selling $358 worth of drugs to an undercover officer. He pleaded guilty and was sentenced to house arrest with five years of probation, receiving no jail time. However, his vehicle (worth $42,000 at the time of arrest) was seized by police. The Indiana Supreme Court rendered its verdict this summer, two years after the US Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the seizure of his Land Rover violated the Eighth Amendment’s ban on excessive fines. Institute of Justice attorney Sam Gedge, who defended Timbs, hailed the ruling, “As the Indiana Supreme Court correctly recognized, Indiana’s campaign to take Timbs’ car is just the sort of abusive forfeiture that the Excessive Fines Clause is designed to curtail.”

CAF continues to be one of the National Motorist Association’s national issues. We are committed to reforming this system by working with national partners, Congress, and state legislators.

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