Last April U.S. District Court Judge Lynn Hughes ordered that Homeland Security agents return the more than $35,000 collected through civil asset forfeiture laws from a Houston family. The family was traveling to Ethiopia, where the economy runs largely on cash, and had approximately $15,000 in cash and an additional $20,000 in travelers’ checks. It is illegal to carry more than $10,000 in cash overseas without first informing U.S. authorities. When asked, the family estimated that they had about $20,000 in cash, which an officer wrote down on a form that he had them sign immediately. When the family’s luggage was searched, and this estimate was found not to be completely accurate, the officers accused the family, who had been fully cooperative throughout the entire process, of a deliberate failure to report and forfeited the entire amount. Judge Hughes opined that the agents manipulated the confusion of the innocent family in order to wrongfully take their money.
The Houston family’s victory in reclaiming their wrongfully forfeited money is a happy ending of which there are far too few in the world of civil asset forfeiture. Civil forfeiture laws represent a major threat to private property rights. These laws allow police and prosecutors to seize cars, cash, land, and any other property, and then sell it to fund agency budgets, all without charging anyone for a crime. Innocent until proven guilty does not apply in civil asset forfeiture laws, instead, the opposite is true: the property is guilty until its owner proves it innocent, at his/her own personal expense. The perverse financial incentives for law enforcement agencies, and the difficulty of contesting such forfeitures, make the laws ripe for abuse. Last year alone federal agencies seized approximately $1.6 billion in assets.