Criminal Justice Reform
Tonya Smith and her husband, Dimitrios Patlias, went to a casino in Maryland a few years ago and struck luck. They took their winnings and headed for dinner at another casino in West Virginia, but they never made it. On their ride over, they were stopped by police and forced to exit their car. Smith, who was 34 weeks pregnant at the time, was placed in handcuffs along with her husband as cops searched their car with dogs. Officers then questioned them about a slew of illegal activities: drugs, guns, smuggling untaxed cigarettes, gift-card fraud.
Ultimately, nothing illegal was found in the vehicle and they were allowed to leave with just a warning citation for crossing into another lane—but not before cops robbed them of the gift cards, an iPhone, and the $10,478 cash in their possession.
What police did to the Patlias is shocking but not unique. Thanks to a policy known as civil asset forfeiture, such scenarios play out virtually every day in America. Many of those targeted cannot afford the legal fees to get their property back, and police are allowed to keep the money even if the owners are never charged with a crime.
For years reformers have worked at the state level to address the problem, advancing policies that require a conviction before asset forfeiture can be employed and demanding more transparency. They’ve faced an uphill battle as police departments and unions lobby heavily to block such measures. In 2017, under the Trump administration, the Department of Justice struck a blow to these efforts, implementing a ruling that essentially says police can seize property from people not charged with a crime—even in states where that practice has been banned.
Civil forfeiture violates the constitutional and property rights of millions of people. It uses the federal government to overturn state laws the feds have no jurisdiction over, violating the Tenth Amendment. And it empowers the government to steal from American citizens. This violates the Fourth Amendment’s protections and prevents citizens from being secure in their person and property.
Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas rightfully noted, “forfeiture operations frequently target the poor and other groups least able to defend their interests in forfeiture proceedings…. Perversely, these same groups are often the most burdened by forfeiture. They are more likely to use cash than alternative forms of payment, like credit cards, which may be less susceptible to forfeiture. And they are more likely to suffer in their daily lives while they litigate for the return of a critical item of property.”
The Biden Administration stated they were committed to Criminal Justice reform. However, many doubted Biden’s new found support of criminal justice reform during the campaign of 2020. He is, after all, the architect of the government’s civil forfeiture law as well as several other bills that shaped our modern justice system.
No matter the party, the constitution remains the plumb line in which this country relies. No matter the president, if a policy is unconstitutional then it must be addressed. No matter the policy, the number one role of our government is to protect our freedoms provided to us by God. To create legislation and law that deprives and continues to deprive of private property rights is not what it means to be a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”