Earlier this year, Justice Clarence Thomas, perhaps the most conservative jurist on the Supreme Court, attacked a government abuse that shocks many Americans when they first learn about it. In scores of cities and towns, law enforcement simply takes property from citizens, then sells or keeps it. They say that the property is related to a crime. But no one needs to prove that the property owner broke any law. Indeed, there are cases where everyone agrees he or she is innocent. And still the stuff is taken!
“This system—where police can seize property with limited judicial oversight and retain it for their own use— has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses,” Thomas wrote:
According to one nationally publicized report, for example, police in the town of Tenaha, Texas, regularly seized the property of out-of-town drivers passing through and collaborated with the district attorney to coerce them into signing waivers of their property rights. In one case, local officials threatened to file unsubstantiated felony charges against a Latino driver and his girlfriend and to place their children in foster care unless they signed a waiver. In another, they seized a black plant worker’s car and all his property (including cash he planned to use for dental work), jailed him for a night, forced him to sign away his property, and then released him on the side of the road without a phone or money. He was forced to walk to a Wal-Mart, where he borrowed a stranger’s phone to call his mother.
This was highway robbery perpetrated against American citizens by their own government. The official euphemism for the practice: “Civil-asset forfeiture.” And egregious abuses have happened in every region of the country. Over the last fifteen years, I have heard these abuses criticized by people from almost every part of the political right. The issue united conservatives at National Review and the Claremont Institute with Cato Institute libertarians and right-wing populists at Breitbart.