You’re at home, having an uneventful day when you hear a booming knock at your door. A glance out of the peephole reveals a group of federal agents and you quickly realize that something is terribly wrong. Upon opening the door, you’re informed that your property is being seized, your car is being taken and all of the cash found in the house will be confiscated. Immediately. Why? The authorities suspect that you've been involved in a crime or some illegal activity, so they've seized your assets, all of them. Whether or not this is true, they have the right to take your possessions.
Although it may not make any sense, what has just happened is completely legal and is actually considered a successful law enforcement tool among both local and federal agencies. It’s called civil asset forfeiture or federal adoption, and it allows law enforcement to seize property and goods if they think they're related to or were procured through illegal activity. This includes real estate, cars, jewelry, boats, cash and pretty much anything that's suspected of being connected to illegal activity. For instance, in the event of a federal crackdown on cannabis, owners of recreational dispensaries and medical cannabis collectives could be more vulnerable to asset seizure of items like raw materials, containers or packaging, information for manufacture and distribution including books, records and formulas, and machines for making capsules and tablets—for starters.
The process of civil forfeiture starts with federal government suspicion that property is directly related with illegal activity, particularly prohibited substances. There are three different types of legal forfeitures—criminal, civil and administrative—with subtle but significant differences between them that have drastic effects on the victims whose property and goods have been seized. The biggest and most damaging distinction is that in civil forfeiture cases, it isn’t necessary for a charge to be filed, so the burden to prove innocence falls on the person whose been accused. It's also the individual’s responsibility to find legal representation and fund their case to get back their property, which can often amount to years in court and astronomical fees.
Money and possessions seized by local and federal agencies are typically recycled back into the organization’s annual budget, creating a conflict of interest where law enforcement starts policing for profit. It’s a practice that's often reframed to appear as a benevolent tool despite its apparent abuse.
In July, Attorney General Jeff Sessions released a statement on policy and guidelines in support of strengthening the federal civil forfeiture program that “takes the material support of the criminals and instead makes it the material support of law enforcement, funding priorities like new vehicles, bulletproof vests, opioid overdose reversal kits and better training.”
This controversial law enforcement tactic, with very few legal protections or due process rules for victims of baseless civil seizures, has also been shown to be highly discriminatory with disproportionate forfeitures occurring in higher rates in communities of color and low-income neighborhoods.
In fact, a recent report from the Nevada Policy Research Institute provides insight into how the Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department routinely targeted the same 12 zip codes, where 56 percent of forfeitures concerned cash or other goods whose value was below $1,000. Without the money to fight back, individuals are often at a loss for having their property returned and are forced to suffer the injustice without recourse.
Sessions’ not-so-subtle admission that one of the driving factors behind this technique is funding law enforcement budgets is just one more reason why the practice needs to be heavily examined and reformed. It not only threatens the livelihood of innocent individuals, it can also have dire consequences for the cannabis industry in regions where state laws and federal laws have conflicting interpretations when it comes to regulatory issues surrounding legality.
It’s still uncertain what the future holds. With the current administration still ironing out so many details, the cannabis industry is all eyes and ears for regulations that will create even more obstacles towards not only mainstream acceptance, but federal legalization. Frankly, the practice of civil forfeiture is not only wrong, but un-American.