When I was a kid back in the day, we used to play “cops and robbers.” One group would be the cops, and the other group would be the robbers. In the grown-up world, there’s — how to put this delicately? — a certain amount of overlap.
I’m not particularly interested here in the single officer that goes bad and pockets a bunch of cash from a drug bust, or some such. That needs to be dealt with, of course, but that’s just ordinary human sinfulness. The temptations come with the job; screen how you will, every now and again someone yeilds to the temptations. It’s the same in any profession.
It’s different when there’s a major incentive to sin built into the system. That’s not just ordinary temptation; that’s an extraordinary problem that calls for decisive action. Civil forfeiture is just such a problem, and it has got to go.
It’s important to grasp the difference between civil and criminal forfeiture. In criminal forfeiture, the accused — innocent until proven guilty — must first be convicted of a crime by a jury of his peers. After conviction, the prosecution can seek to confiscate the proceeds of the crime. That is holy and just and good; the criminal must not be allowed to profit from his crime.
Civil forfeiture is another matter altogether. In civil forfeiture, no conviction is necessary. The person isn’t accused of anything directly; the property itself is accused of being proceeds of a crime. Why accuse the property instead of the person, you ask? Because property is not innocent until proven guilty.
So the officer can make up a story in his head about where this particular car, wad of cash, etc. came from, and then confiscate it on the basis of the story in his head. He will write up an affidavit to justify his actions, and if the rightful owner wants his property back, he will have to prove that the officer’s story is wrong. Backwards, you say? Even illegal? Sure, it would be — if the officer were accusing the person of anything. People are innocent until proven guilty. People have to stand trial and be convicted. But in a legal maneuver worthy of the Pharisees, the accusation is technically against the property, not the person. Property is not innocent until proven guilty. The gold sanctifies the altar, as it were.
Civil forfeiture is a direct (and frankly, transparent) violation of the Fourth Amendment. It is illegal, which is an important observation for Christian resistance. That’s a discussion for another day, because there’s a prior concern: civil forfeiture is sin. Even if it were entirely legal under the laws of the land, it is a violation of the laws of God, specifically the Eighth Commandment. It is stealing, plain and simple.
The officer who initiates the forfeiture is a thief, taking that which does not belong to him, justifying his theft with a story he made up in his head. The property clerk who receives the stolen goods into his custody is committing the same crime that any fence commits. The chain of command that condones the officer’s actions and any judge who approves of it — thieves, the lot of them. The fact that their jurisdictions have conspired to pretend the theft is legal doesn’t make it right; it just implicates the voters in the theft as well.
This is one of the things we have church discipline for, and in jurisdictions where civil forfeiture is going on, churches should be exercising it.
For further information, read Policing for Profit.