Linda Martin never expected that her life savings would be seized by the FBI. On March 22, 2021, the FBI confiscated Martin’s and 1,400 other customers’ safe deposit boxes from U.S. Private Vaults, a Beverly Hills–based company. Martin had put her nest egg in the safe deposit box to ensure that she would not be tempted to touch it. She had been saving the money to buy a house, and now the FBI had taken her $40,200 without any explanation.
The FBI took her life savings. Now she’s fighting to help others get theirs back.https://t.co/8bJgzP4oto
— Teny Sahakian (@TenySahakian) March 18, 2023
Civil asset forfeiture has been around since the 1980s and is based on the premise of taking the property of drug dealers to make the illegal trade unprofitable. However, this practice has been largely ineffective and has been abused by law enforcement. In fact, authorities do not even need to suspect someone of a crime in order to take their property. This is what happened to Linda Martin, who was never accused of committing any crime.
“Martin isn’t accused of committing a crime. She doesn’t even appear to be SUSPECTED of a crime. She merely used a safe deposit box company that was also being used criminally. As such, her $40,000 is now in police hands.” @TheTomKnighton https://t.co/085OlrrK0o
— Jack Hunter (@jackhunter74) March 23, 2023
The Institute for Justice notes that the typical amount taken in a civil asset forfeiture case is less than $1,300. This amount is particularly problematic because getting it back would often cost citizens more in legal fees than the actual amount they would recover. In addition, there have been several years where law enforcement has taken more from people in monetary value than burglars.
The problem is that there is no due process involved in civil asset forfeiture. The item is accused of a crime and since it’s not a person, it isn’t given legal representation. The lawful owner must prove beyond any doubt that the money in question has nothing to do with crime. This is an incredibly difficult task, especially when dealing with large sums of money like Martin’s $40,000.
The revenue from civil asset forfeiture amounts to $8.8 billion between 2000 and 2019, which creates a perverse incentive for law enforcement to seize people’s property regardless of whether they are suspected of committing a crime or not. A 2020 survey from YouGov found that 56% of people opposed civil asset forfeiture once they were informed about it. However, 53% of people had never heard of civil asset forfeiture before being informed about it through the survey. As such, there is no pressure on lawmakers to repeal this practice, which continues to be abused by law enforcement.