Supreme Court agrees to hear civil forfeiture challenge

U.S. Supreme Court in Washington. Photo Credit: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite as reported by Forbes, 2/1/18.

U.S. Supreme Court in Washington. Photo Credit: AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite as reported by Forbes, 2/1/18.

Billions of dollars in government revenue and one of the most contentious constitutional questions of the present day are at stake in a pending U.S. Supreme Court case over civil forfeiture.

“For the first time in over 20 years, the U.S. Supreme Court will have the opportunity to review the constitutionality of civil forfeiture laws, which allow the government to confiscate cash, cars, and even homes,” Forbes reported.

Civil forfeiture laws allowed local and state jurisdictions to reap millions of dollars: “from 2001 to 2014, the Justice Department and the Treasury Department’s forfeiture funds took in almost $29 billion,” Forbes reported.

The court has granted a cert petition from Tyson Timbs, “who was forced to forfeit his $40,000 Land Rover in civil court to the State of Indiana, after he pled guilty to selling less than $200 worth of drugs,” the Forbes article reported.

Timbs prevailed in lower courts, but last fall the Indiana Supreme Court ruled against him. “The Excessive Fines Clause does not bar the State from forfeiting Defendant’s vehicle,” the court ruled, “because the United States Supreme Court has not held that the Clause applies to the States through the Fourteenth Amendment.”

Now, the U.S. Supreme Court is poised to weigh in.

New Federal Law Targets Civil Pot-Forfeiture Issues

For anyone who noted the civil forfeiture issues raised by HBO’s John Oliver (and if you have not, stop whatever you’re doing and watch it now), there’s news of a bill that would target the marijuana aspects of the practice, cutting off some funding for the DEA.
On a Forbes Magazine “recommended blog,” Nick Sibilla of the Institute for Justice reports that a bipartisan bill in Congress “… would prevent the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) from using federal forfeiture funds to pay for its Domestic Cannabis Eradication/Suppression Program. Additionally, the bill would ban transferring property to federal, state or local agencies if that property ‘is used for any purpose pertaining to’ the DEA’s marijuana eradication program.”
The blog adds some context: “Last year, the program was responsible for over 6,300 arrests, eradicating over 4.3 million marijuana plants and seizing $27.3 million in assets. More than half of all plants destroyed were in California, which also accounted for over one-third of seized assets and nearly 40 percent of the arrests.”

John Oliver Somehow Makes ‘Civil Forfeiture’ Funny

There has long been a rule of inverse interest in the media, which holds that the more important an issue is, the more boring coverage becomes. Example: The United Nation’s committee work on feeding the world’s starving children is vital to humanity and not the stuff of spectator sport; a bunch of guys running around a field kicking a ball has no real impact and is obsessed over by billions.
But John Oliver, the comic host of Last Week Tonight on HBO, defies the rule with an informative and very funny report on the nation’s civil forfeiture practices. The laws vary among states, but basically allow authorities to seize property even if the owner is never charged with a crime – just like in immigration court, many rights associated with police action are not in play because these are civil actions.
A recent less-funny report in The New Yorker magazine noted that “… unlike criminal forfeiture, which requires that a person be convicted of an offense before his or her property is confiscated, civil forfeiture amounts to a lawsuit filed directly against a possession, regardless of its owner’s guilt or innocence. One result is the rise of improbable case names such as United States v. One Pearl Necklace and United States v. Approximately 64,695 Pounds of Shark Fins.” Those were cited by Oliver in his report.
It would be much funnier if it did not illustrate just how messed up and abused our civil justice system can be. Take a look – and it’s worth watching the whole video. Click Here.