Rosenblum Schwartz & Fry

SCOTUS rules strongly on civil asset forfeiture practice

So-called “civil asset forfeiture” has long been a hot-button topic in Missouri and other states across the country, with both adherents and detractors voicing strong opinions concerning the practice.

Asset forfeiture enables federal and state law enforcers to seize property they say is somehow related to the spoils of crime. An alleged drug trafficker’s bank accounts might be taken over. A business owner might have equipment or other assets seized by authorities claiming that an enterprise has been engaging in money laundering.

Supporters of the practice – most notably state police departments and federal enforcement agencies – staunchly defend it for its stated effectiveness in striking back against organized crime, terrorism and other elevated concerns.

Critics deem it an unconstitutional sham, with some calling it “policing for profit.”

A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision now gives asset forfeiture opponents some potent ammunition to use in cases where state actors have exercised forfeiture powers. The tribunal was asked to consider whether the U.S. Constitution’s 8th Amendment ban against excessive fines applies to the states as well as to the federal government. Indiana authorities argued that it did not.

SCOTUS ruled otherwise, and unanimously so. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg wrote that “the protection against excessive fines has been a constant shield throughout Anglo-American history.”

The ruling will obviously command close attention in every state, including Missouri, where forfeiture reform discussions and suggested legislation are currently in the mix.

Reportedly, authorities have levied more than $50 billion in fines and forfeitures on approximately 10 million people.

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