Think “corporate personhood” is bad? Well, there’s a far stranger notion in American law: civil forfeiture. That’s where corporeal property is said to have personhood, and thus can be sued — rather than its owner. This goofy doctrine allows governments — state and local, as well as, of course, federal — to take property from people without establishing that the owner had done anything wrong by strict standards of evidence and rules of culpability.
The property is just nabbed, really.
It’s a horrible atavism, an old idea from the bad old days before a rule of law was established. And it encourages governments to be kleptocratic. Whole law enforcement agencies fund their luxuries and perks by this method.
A typical example? “In 2003 a Nebraska state trooper stopped Emiliano Gonzolez for speeding on Interstate 80,” writes Jacob Sullum at Reason, “and found $124,700 inside a cooler on the back seat of the rented Ford Taurus he was driving. Gonzolez said the money was intended to buy a refrigerated truck for a produce business, but the cops figured all that cash must have something to do with illegal drugs.” So the government took the money.
This sort of takings — confiscation — helps drive the drug war, of course.
But it often takes from the innocent as well as the criminal.
Since “suing the property” conforms to neither normal civil nor criminal law, it’s all rigged in the government’s favor. It’s scandalous that courts have ruled it constitutional. Something has to be done to curb its use in America.
Rand Paul wants to reform civil forfeiture. Seems like an awfully small step. How much better to abolish it!
This is Common Sense. I’m Paul Jacob.