Welcome to Seward County, Nebraska, where a government scheme is robbing innocent Americans of their hard-earned property and money—to the tune of millions of dollars. Drivers passing through are often given an unfair choice by government officials: either sign away their property or risk jail time.
It’s all happening under civil asset forfeiture, a system that allows law enforcement to seize property they allege to be involved in a crime, even if the property owner isn’t accused of doing anything wrong. In fact, many victims of civil asset forfeiture aren’t even charged with a crime, let alone convicted, yet once the government confiscates their property, it’s extremely difficult to get it back.
As an investigative report in the Nebraska-based Flatwater Free Press reveals, Seward County government officials often seize property from innocent drivers using controversial roadside waivers during traffic stops. These on-the-spot waivers tell drivers they can sign away their right to their money or other property—or face possible arrest and criminal charges. In some cases, government officials pressure drivers into signing these waivers without fully understanding their contents, leading those drivers to believe they have no right to challenge the asset forfeiture in court. This makes it easier for the government to unjustly take title of people’s property without abiding by due process rights. Over the past 10 years, Seward County Officials have seized $2.2 million from drivers using civil forfeiture.
Civil asset forfeiture has devastating consequences across the nation—governments use it to seize billions of dollars’ worth of property each year. County officials in Massachusetts, for instance, seized innocent grandmother Malinda Harris’ car and kept it for six long years—until Goldwater took her case and got her car back. In another outrageous case, a California county government stole $17,500 that entrepreneurial sisters Vera and Apollonia Ward intended to use for their dog breeding business and falsely accused them of drug trafficking. They would have kept the money too, had Goldwater not served up a dose of justice and got the money back. And in Arizona, officials raided Scottsdale man Luis Garcia’s home based on an investigation into his adult son and seized $5,300 that Garcia had raised for youth charity soccer tournament—only returning the money after Goldwater demanded they do so.
Civil asset forfeiture is a highly abused system because it is easier and faster than pursuing criminal cases. “You can see how from a prosecutor’s standpoint, especially one who’s really busy, that might be enticing,” Goldwater Director of Government Affairs Jenna Bentley tells the Flatwater Free Press. “But that doesn’t mean it’s the right path, and it certainly doesn’t justify allowing that violation of a person’s due process rights to happen.” Making matters worse, the government has an incentive to steal from innocent Americans because it actually profits off of the property it takes by either keeping or selling it. Government agencies can then use these funds to pay for salaries, computers, cars, new buildings, and more.
But the Goldwater Institute is leading the nation in fighting government theft. In 2021, we passed a crucial reform that requires a criminal conviction before a person’s property can be taken under civil asset forfeiture in Arizona. Critically, that legislation also banned the use of roadside waivers so issues like what Seward Country is experiencing don’t happen in the Grand Canyon State.
But there’s still much work to be done. One significant obstacle to civil asset forfeiture reform is equitable sharing. This federal program creates a loophole by allowing state and local agencies to receive a portion of property taken under federal civil forfeiture law, even if their own state laws don’t allow it. In other words, state or local agencies collaborate with the federal government to carry out takings under civil forfeiture. Up to 80 percent of forfeiture proceeds can then be returned to, or shared with, state and local agencies. In sum, even when state legislatures try to rein in or stop civil forfeiture, the government can get around it by opting into this federal program.
The Goldwater Institute is committed to helping innocent Americans beat the unjust system of civil asset forfeiture, no matter what loopholes the government uses to steal their property. Our legal team is actively defending clients and recovering stolen property, while our policy analysts are developing reforms and restrictions to curtail excessive state power.
Every American deserves the right to private property and due process. The Goldwater Institute is reining in civil asset forfeiture so that innocent Americans don’t fall victim to government theft.
Cameron Teel is a Ronald Reagan Fellow at the Goldwater Institute.
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