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Goldwater Strikes Blow Against Government Theft at Federal Appeals Court

November 30, 2023

A victim of child sexual abuse was supposed to receive a small measure of relief when a North Carolina judge ordered her abuser to pay her $69,000 in restitution—that is, until the federal government stepped in and claimed the money for itself.

Officials did it by exploiting a little-known loophole in civil asset forfeiture laws, which the government uses to confiscate private property simply because it thinks that property might somehow be connected to a crime, even if authorities don’t suspect the owner of wrongdoing. But this week the Goldwater Institute struck a major blow against this type of predatory practice when the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reaffirmed basic due process rights, ruling that the burden of proof in forfeiture cases is on the government, not property owners.

The government should focus on its core functions of fighting crime and protecting people’s fundamental rights. But civil asset forfeiture flips those functions on their head, incentivizing the government to violate people’s rights—including even crime victims—by taking their property without any due process, to the tune of $3 billion taken each year. Even worse, state agencies have increasingly exploited a loophole called “equitable sharing” that lets them turn over wrongfully taken property to the federal government only to receive up to 80% of it back—thus evading the strong legal protections for private property that exist in states like North Carolina.

That’s wrong. But Goldwater is a leader in fighting civil asset forfeiture—from state legislatures to courts across the country—no matter what loopholes the government uses to steal its citizens’ property. And this week we scored an important victory in the Fourth Circuit, in another case involving equitable sharing. While trial courts frequently defer to the government in forfeiture proceedings and make it extremely difficult for a citizen to challenge a forfeiture action, the Fourth Circuit’s decision makes clear that the government bears the burden of proving confiscated property is subject to forfeiture, rather than the property owner having to prove it isn’t.

Goldwater is also working throughout the country to end government theft.

In Massachusetts, Goldwater’s American Freedom Network of pro bono attorneys helped innocent grandmother Malinda Harris get her car back after the government took the vehicle—without accusing her of any wrongdoing—and kept it for six long years. Malinda even went before Congress to share her story with lawmakers and call for reform.

Innocent entrepreneurs Vera and Apollonia Ward, meanwhile, didn’t know where to turn after California police confiscated $17,000 that they planned to use for their dog-breeding business and falsely accused the sisters of drug trafficking. Lawyers who could help weren’t returning their calls, until the Goldwater Institute stepped in and got the money back.

And in Arizona, Goldwater was part of a coalition that passed common-sense legislation that requires law enforcement to obtain a criminal conviction before forcing citizens to forfeit their property, among other reforms.

We’ll keep fighting government theft nationwide—and this week’s Fourth Circuit decision is a valuable precedent that will help us do it.

John Thorpe is a Staff Attorney at the Goldwater Institute.



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