Civil asset forfeiture sounds confusing, and most Americans don’t know that it means drug enforcement officials can help themselves to people’s cash, cars and other belongings. Christopher Ingraham’s article in the October 1, 2015 issue of the New York Times is titled: Most Americans don’t realize it’s this easy for police to take your cash.
In The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander calls forfeiture laws “Finders Keepers” and traces the practice of the police being able to seize cash and assets when enforcing drug laws back to 1970. But it wasn’t until 1984 during the Reagan Administration that Congress amended the law that allowed all law enforcement agencies to retain the proceeds for their own use. Alexander continues, “ Suddenly, police departments were capable of increasing the size of their budgets, quite substantially, simply by taking the cash, cars, and homes of people suspected of drug use or sales.” 
When I read about this in The New Jim Crow, it shocked me, and then I remembered bringing up the idea of search warrants with my prison students in a civics class one day. It set off a firestorm with my students saying that the police could barge in and help themselves to anything they wanted. At the time, I found it hard to believe.
Several rules make it even worse. A mere suspicion that someone is involved in using or selling drugs is all that’s need for property to be seized; the owner has no right to counsel; and the burden of proof is on the owner. Few people can afford lawyers and do not want to challenge the government’s action for fear of criminal charges.
There are even more insidious aspects to this. I cannot imagine the anger, desperation, frustration and despair of having property seized only because the authorities are suspicious. For the police to be able to simply help themselves to someone else’s property opens the door to all kinds of abuse and corruption. More people need to know that this has persisted for decades, with reforms not going nearly far enough. As Alexander writes, “Despite all of the new procedural rules and formal protections, the law does not address the single most serious problem associated with drug-war forfeiture laws: the profit motive in drug-law enforcement.”  No wonder the drug wars have continued!
Fortunately, there is bi-partisan support for reform of this practice. In a time of legislative gridlock, the beginnings of reform are sailing through both houses of the Michigan legislatures.
- Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (The New Press, New York, 2012), 79.
- Ibid., 83.