Britannica defines civil asset forfeiture as a “legal process that enables a government to seize property and other assets belonging to persons suspected of committing a crime.” This law enforcement tool has been used throughout United States history, dating back to the earliest days of the country and the nation’s foundation on English law. The Legal Information Institute at Cornell University describes the tool as having gained popularity during the Prohibition era, as the government sought to seize illegal alcohol and prevent further illicit production.
The tool once again grew in popularity through the 1980s’ War on Drugs. Legally, the tool was federally codified in the Comprehensive Crime Act of 1984, which allowed the government to “seize first, and defend the forfeiture in court later.” Since that decade, the use of the tool has been subject to robust debate regarding its appropriate use and potential safeguards. For example, the Department of Justice under the Obama Administration issued a 2015 order that eliminated most types of federal adoptions of state and local seizures. This order was then reversed by the Department of Justice in 2017 under the leadership of the Trump Administration.
Supporters of civil asset forfeiture describe its effectiveness in reducing potential crime and limiting the impact of organized crime groups. Opponents of the tool argue that law enforcement agencies have a clear bias and incentive to seize property, as law enforcement agencies are able to use the funds or proceeds from sales for regular operations. Regardless of perspective, the use of the tool has exponentially escalated since 2000.
This deliberation guides students through a review of both the historical and contemporary arguments for and against the use of the tool. After a careful review of multiple perspectives, students will determine whether federal, state, and local law enforcement officials should continue the practice of civil asset forfeiture.
Objectives and Outcomes
- Students will be able to describe key vocabulary terms and concepts associated with the debate surrounding the continued use of civil asset forfeiture.
- Students will be able to identify and explain aspects of the civil asset forfeiture debate including those of civil liberties, due process, criminal justice, and law enforcement.
- Students will be able to evaluate arguments relating to the continued use of civil asset forfeiture and formulate an opinion on this question.