The slippery slope of civil forfeiture


Civil forfeiture cases in the U.S. are rife with abuse stories. In Canada we have a few more restrictions on civil forfeiture but critics warn we may not have enough. Today we're looking at the legislation and find out how U.S. police are extracting amounts of cash from people they often don't charge.

"If police suspect that you've committed a crime they can arrest you and put you on trial. At that trial prosecutors must prove your guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. But police suspect your car was involved in car they can take it, sell it, and in most places pocket the proceeds to pad their budgets. They need not prove you committed any crime or even arrest you to take your property away. Welcome to the upside down world of civil forfeiture".

Injustice for Justice video, a civil liberties law firm

That is quote is from an educational video released by the Institute for Justice, a civil liberties law firm based in Virginia. It education hopes to raise awareness about civil forfeiture -- a procedure that allows law enforcement to seize assets without convicting or even charging the owners.

Civil forfeiture was designed to prevent criminals from profiting from their crimes. But critics say it's being widely abused as police seize jewelry, laptops, cars and sometimes even the homes of innocent people.

As part of The Current's year-long series Project Money, we are taking a closer look at civil forfeiture... starting in the U.S., and then turning to Canada.

Tewksbury motel owner lobbying Congress for reform of federal civil-forfeiture laws —¬†Sentinel & Enterprise

  • Russ Caswell is the owner of Motel Caswell in Tewksbury Massachusetts. In 2009 he received a notice from federal law enforcement that they planned to seize his motel because of reports that drug trafficking took place on the premises. But he says there was no evidence that he had broken the law.

  • Sarah Stillman spent months speaking with people who lost property and cash in civil forfeiture cases. She wrote a breath taking account of the practice for New Yorker magazine where she is a staff writer. Sarah Stillman says the use of civil forfeiture in the United States is out of control and police departments are using the proceeds to offset budget cuts. She joined us from Washington D.C.

  • Joshua Krane believes Canadians should also be concerned about civil forfeiture laws. He is a lawyer with Blake, Cassels & Graydon in Toronto. He represented the Canadian Civil Liberties Association in the most recent case on civil forfeiture before the Supreme Court of Canada. Joshua Krane says that civil forfeiture laws in many provinces in Canada threaten civil liberties because they can seize property belonging to people not connected with any crime.

What do you think of civil forfeiture and the potential for abuse?

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This segment was produced by The Current's Josh Bloch.

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