Thursday, December 22, 2016

Civil Forfeiture

Civil forfeiture is the fairly terrible idea that your property can seized by the government separately from the criminal justice process. 

The City of Albuquerque has an aggressive program as described by the Institute for Justice here. The lede of the article:

"Arlene Harjo’s two-year-old silver Nissan Versa has sat for months in an impound lot in Albuquerque—targeted by city officials for civil forfeiture.

Nobody claims Arlene violated the law. Instead, the city is trying to take Arlene’s car because her son, Tino, allegedly drove drunk. Arlene does not approve of drunk driving; if Tino broke the law, she agrees he should be punished. But she does not see why she should be the one to lose her car."

Setting aside the obvious Constitutional issues, the problem with civil forfeiture is that it's a system that incentivizes government seizing private property.  And anyone who has passed Economics 101 understands that people respond to incentives.  This is why a program designed to punish drug dealers by seizing expensive assets like boats and cars evolved into a system that robs mostly ordinary (and mostly poor) citizens.

The Institute for Justice delves into the issue more deeply in the report, "Policing for Profit."  So why talk about it on this blog?  Wrongheaded programs like civil forfeiture destroy what little confidence people have left in local government.  What Albuquerque is doing is more than unlawful; it's just plain wrong.  Arlene Harjo deserves an apology, not just from the City of Albuquerque but from the profession of public administration for not speaking out more strongly.

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