Rosenblum Schwartz & Fry
314-862-4332

Asset forfeiture: unobjectionable or seizure without due process?

Is it an above-board police tactic or essentially just a grab of citizens' property that nets funds for short-on-cash law enforcement agencies in Missouri and other states across the country?

If you haven't personally heard of asset forfeiture, maybe a friend or acquaintance of yours has had a close encounter with this often employed and much misunderstood state and federal enforcement tool.

Fundamentally, asset forfeiture is a government program that is expressly designed to take away the unjust spoils of crime from those who commit unlawful acts. Its original intent was -- and authorities say continues to be -- to hit serious crime like drug trafficking and money laundering hard. If law enforcers perceive that an asset -- a house, vehicle, cash, whatever -- has been derived from unlawful conduct, they simply seize it.

And then split up the spoils. As one recent media piece notes, asset forfeiture "led to a $9 million windfall for Missouri law enforcement agencies in 2016."

And according to an article that appeared recently in the St. Louis-Dispatch, forfeited assets bring in ample revenue for enforcement groups all across the country.

Proponents of asset forfeiture readily cite a two-pronged benefit linked with aggressive police seizures, namely (1) a dent put into criminal groups through taking their ill-derived gains, and (2) increased cooperation among law enforcement agencies fighting crime engendered by knowledge that they will all share in the spoils.

Critics see it as something else altogether. The argument is often made that asset-forfeiture seizures often have police departments acting not much differently from criminals themselves. Assets are often taken from individuals and businesses without a formal hearing or other due process protections, and it can be exceedingly hard to reclaim an asset once taken, even for individuals ultimately exonerated of any crime.

For that reason, states the Dispatch opinion piece, many people who are concerned with asset forfeiture see it "as an example of government run amok." One commentator terms it "legalized theft."

One unquestioned certainty regarding the tool/process relates to its profitability. Reportedly, asset forfeiture put more than $5 billion into police coffers nationwide in a recent year.

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Rosenblum Schwartz & Fry

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