Constitutional safeguards protect U.S. citizens from being imprisoned on the mere suspicion of having committed a crime. But law enforcement in most states and at the federal level can seize cash and property without proof of wrongdoing, let alone a criminal conviction. The practice is called civil forfeiture, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions justifies it as a way to “hit organized crime in the wallet”—without having to win cases in the courtroom.
The use of civil forfeiture has not been limited to drug kingpins. In 2014 The Washington Post looked at the nearly 62,000 seizures of cash since Sept. 11, 2001, totaling more than $2.5 billion, and found that about half involved sums of less than $8,800, many taken during traffic stops on flimsy pretenses. In most cases, local governments keep whatever money they seize (appeals are rare because of the legal expenses), creating a perverse incentive to trawl the highways for revenue.
In late March, the Republican governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, signed a forfeiture reform bill banning the seizure of assets by police unless and until there is a criminal conviction. Wisconsin is the 15th state to at least put limits on seizures. Other states should follow suit. In a poll taken in 2016, 84 percent of U.S. adults opposed civil forfeiture; only the political clout of prosecutors and police departments is keeping it alive. Eliminating this routine violation of constitutional rights should be a priority for bipartisan criminal justice reform.