The United States Constitution provides that the government may not take your property without due process of law. In the criminal law context that usually means that you cannot be punished, or have your property taken unless the government can prove that you committed a crime. Yet, in states and cities across the country, property owners who have never been charged with a crime are having their property taken and sold to fill local budget shortfalls. This process is called civil asset forfeiture.
Under most civil asset forfeiture programs any property associated with a crime can be seized and sold by the local authorities regardless of whether or not the owner of the property is charged with a crime. For example, in Houston, Texas the police seized a Chevy pickup when the man driving the truck was arrested for drunk driving. The problem was, the drunk driver didn’t own the vehicle. He was still making payments to the car dealership. Yet, under Texas law, the dealer who owned the vehicle had to go to court and prove that it was innocent–i.e. that the dealer didn’t know the man it sold the car to was a drunk– in order to get the car back. That case is still in court.
In another case, a woman lost her only vehicle when her husband was arrested for soliciting a prostitute in the family car. The car was in her name, and she clearly never consented to her husband’s infidelity, yet under that government’s civil asset forfeiture laws the police were able to seize and sell her vehicle for profit.
More recently in California, a landlord nearly lost an entire commercial plaza to the federal government because the tenants were using the building to run a state approved medical marijuana dispensary. The owner was not involved in the tenants’ activities, and the activities in the building were legal under state law. However, because the dispensation of marijuana violates federal law, the federal government attempted to seize the property. Our friends at Institute for Justice were able to get the Federal Government to abandon its efforts.
Yet, the fact that the issue had to go to federal court is troubling. Innocent property owners shouldn’t bear the burden of proving their innocence in order to keep their property. If the government wants to take property, the burden should be on the government to show that the taking is justified, not the other way around. Indeed, under California state law property cannot be forfeited unless the property owner is convicted of a felony crime. Unfortunately, local budget shortfalls are pushing governments to find creative ways to try and make money, so unconstitutional civil asset forfeiture laws are becoming more popular.
The Sacramento and Los Angeles property rights lawyers, and the Los Angeles land use lawyer team at Kassouni Law consider property rights the bedrock of a free society. If you have had your Constitutional Property Rights violated by the government through civil asset forfeiture or by any other means, please call the Sacramento and Los Angeles land use lawyers at 877-770-7379 for an evaluation of your legal matter.