Each year, law enforcement in Illinois seizes millions of dollars worth of property from citizens without charging them of a crime through civil asset forfeiture. In order to reclaim that property, a citizen must oppose the government in court and they aren’t even provided with a lawyer. To even get to court, one may be required to pay ten percent of the value of their property that was seized. Once in the courtroom, the law provides the government with plenty of advantages and most people simply give up on trying to reclaim their property. Illinois law in regards to civil asset forfeiture is discriminatory, unfair, and it helps to highlight a worrying trend towards a disregard for the voice of ordinary people.
Since 2005, Illinois has taken over $319 million from private citizens. In the same time span, federal officials have confiscated $404 million worth of property. Civil asset forfeiture has proven to be lucrative for law enforcement but devastating to ordinary people. Reason magazine and Lucy Parsons Labs, a police oversight nonprofit, obtained information that showed the locations of thousands of forfeitures in Chicago. The data showed that those who were hit hardest by forfeiture were the poor and minorities. In a statement, Parsons Labs wrote, “this provides more evidence that the war on drugs is a racist policy that must be ended.”
Illinois’s laws don’t do much to help slow this problem either. With some of the most pro-law-enforcement forfeiture laws in the country, Illinois allows police to keep up to 90 percent of what they seize. Additionally, the process for reclaiming one’s property is difficult and confusing. In the end, the amount of time and money that is needed to reclaim property proves to be more valuable than the property itself, causing many to simply give up. What makes matters worse is that this mostly affects ordinary people.
It is often claimed that civil asset forfeiture is used to take money from drug gangs. Just this February, President Trump said, “they have a huge stash of drugs. So in the old days, you take it. Now we’re criticized if we take it.” But the fact of the matter is that this simply is not true. Most forfeitures are from small-dollar properties, it isn’t from vast drug networks. Between 2012 and 2017, roughly 11,000 of the 23,065 seizures in Chicago were for amounts of less than $1,000 and the median value of each seizure was $1,049. This type of forfeiture doesn’t do anything to go after gangs, it simply hurts average people. This year, a 70-year old women in Moline, Illinois lost her car after her grandson drove it with a revoked license. It took 10 months for Sylvia Smith, a disabled Chicago grandmother In Chicago, to get back possession of her car after her grandson was caught in it with marijuana. The list of items seized contains some things used for drug sales and productions, but it also includes jewelry, TV’s, and video games.
The laws in Illinois are ineffective as they target ordinary people, discriminatory as they target minorities, and, unsurprisingly, deeply unpopular. A poll by the Illinois Policy Institute found that 89 percent of Illinois registered voters do not favor the use of civil asset forfeiture. Yet, when speaking about these laws in general in February, Donald Trump said in regards to pressure on police to stop forfeiture, “Who would want that pressure, other than, like, bad people, right?” This disregard for other ideas, labelling all dissenting people as “bad” is terrible for democracy and it unfortunately isn’t limited to this issue. Plenty of issues, from single payer to a higher minimum wage, are supported by a majority of voters, but not by a majority of politicians. Martin Van Buren once said, “the sober second thought of the people is never wrong.” When one looks at the history of the United States, it becomes clear that he is right. From the progressive movement, to the civil rights movement, to the New Deal, all positive change in America has come about through pressure on political leaders. It is a worrying fact that Bruce Rauner, Donald Trump, and other major political figures continue to refuse to listen to their constituents on these matters. The collective voice of ordinary people is almost always the sole spot of reason and clarity in a world dominated by beltway politics.