By Lee McGrath and Nick Sibilla | March 5, 2017 5:11 p.m. ET
America’s sheriffs have given President Trump a woefully inaccurate view of civil asset forfeiture—the process through which police seize, and prosecutors literally sue, cash, cars and real estate that they suspect may be connected to a crime. “People want to say we’re taking money and without due process. That’s not true,” a Kentucky sheriff told the president last month at a White House meeting. Critics of forfeiture, the sheriff added, simply “make up stories.”
In fact, thousands of Americans have had their assets taken without ever being charged with a crime, let alone convicted. Russ Caswell almost lost his Massachusetts motel, which had been run by his family for more than 50 years, because of 15 “drug-related incidents” there from 1994-2008, a period through which he rented out nearly 200,000 rooms.
Maryland dairy farmer Randy Sowers had his entire bank account—roughly $60,000—seized by the IRS, which accused him of running afoul of reporting requirements for cash deposits. Mandrel Stuart had $17,550 in receipts from his Virginia barbecue restaurant confiscated during a routine traffic stop. A manager of a Christian rock band had $53,000 in cash—profits from concerts and donations intended for an orphanage in Thailand—seized in Oklahoma after being stopped for a broken taillight. All of the property in these outrageous cases was eventually returned, but only after an arduous process.
This kind of abuse has united reformers on all sides of the political debate: progressives, conservatives, independents, even a few former drug warriors. Since 2014 nearly 20 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws limiting asset forfeiture or increasing transparency. Nearly 20 other states are considering similar legislation.