By David Flemming
Last month, Vermonters were shocked to hear about police confiscating guns from an an nnocent man because a boy was trying to steal the man’s guns to target a school. This confiscation was made easier with state legislation passed last year. Fortunately for the owner, the guns were returned to him. The gun owner may not have been so lucky if the state had decided to seize his guns under a different statute.
Civil asset forfeiture occurs when police suspect an individual of wrongdoing and decide to take property used in the alleged crime (such as a vehicle, home, guns or cash).
Since confiscating goods is easier than securing a criminal conviction, police officers have been known to offer freedom in exchange for a person’s property related to the crime. Law enforcement can then sell the property and pocket a portion of the proceeds, which varies by state. In the strict legal sense, the property is guilty until proven innocent. Getting it back in a court of law can often prove more costly than the property itself, leading many to give up on its safe return.
Civil asset forfeiture first came into vogue during 1920s Prohibition with the seizure of alcohol. It was revitalized during the 1980’s as a way to battle drug dealers. Over the past two decades however, law enforcement has become increasingly reliant and aggressive toward ordinary citizens in using asset forfeiture to fund its operations.
For 14 years, from 2000 to 2014, the Cato Institute ranked Vermont around No. 10 among the 50 states for asset protection. But we’ve recently dropped to No. 15.
In 2015, Vermont passed a law requiring a conviction in criminal court prior before property could be confiscated in civil court. Unfortunately, this step forward was accompanied by a move to allow law enforcement agencies to keep 45 percent of forfeiture proceeds, whereas before the entire amount went in the state treasury. Thus, Vermont’s police officers were given an incentive to take property from their neighbors.
Vermont and 39 other states require the owner of the property to prove their property’s innocence, which is no easy task. In 2012, a grandmother lost her home after her son used it to sell marijuana out of, unbeknownst to her.
Vermont is a little better in regards to “how convincing” the government’s evidence must be to a judge or jury. Vermont courts require the government to use evidence that points toward guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt” or in a “clear and convincing” manner, depending on the property seized. This is a better presumption of innocence than the “preponderance of evidence” standard that most states use, but it is still a worse standard than the most protective states.
While we can be thankful about the recent Supreme Court win against broad forfeiture, only time will tell if Vermonters’ property will be safer from the government’s prying hands. In the meantime, keeping all of your property in Bitcoin is the safest way to protect it.
David Flemming is a policy analyst for the Ethan Allen Institute. Reprinted with permission from the Ethan Allen Institute Blog.