The Department of Justice took $4.5 billion in private property including cash, cars and homes from Americans in 2014, which includes both civil and criminal forfeitures, according to a report from the Institute for Justice.
A majority, or 87 percent, of the forfeitures by the government from 1997 to 2013 were civil forfeitures, while only 13 percent were criminal.
"Under civil forfeiture laws, the government can seize this property on the mere suspicion that it is connected to criminal activity," the report, entitled "Policing for Profit," said. "No charges or convictions are required."
"Every year, police and prosecutors across the United States take hundreds of millions of dollars in cash, cars, homes and other property—regardless of the owners’ guilt or innocence," the report found.
Proceeds from the sale of this personal property are used to generate revenue for the federal government.
In 1986, the Justice Department took $93.7 million in revenue from these forfeitures and in 2014, they took $4.5 billion, representing a 4,667 percent increase.
The report drew attention to a case of asset forfeiture involving Charles Clarke, a 24-year old carrying $11,000 in cash on a flight home to Florida. Federal agents claimed that Clarke’s bag smelled of marijuana and seized the funds. Although the law enforcement officials could not find any drugs on his person or his bag, current law allowed his property to be seized.
"The officers found no evidence that he was guilty of any crime before seizing his money," the report said. "In the upside-down world of civil forfeiture, they did not have to."
"Civil forfeiture threatens the constitutional rights of all Americans," said Scott Bullock, a senior attorney at the Institute for Justice. "Using civil forfeiture, the government can take your home, business, cash, car or other property on the mere suspicion that it is somehow connected to criminal activity—and without ever convicting or even charging you with a crime."
Angela Erickson, a senior research analyst at the Institute for Justice said civil forfeiture should be abolished.
"Civil forfeiture needs to be completely abolished," Erickson said. "Short of that, the federal government should reform its laws by requiring a criminal conviction and eliminating the profit incentive that allows law enforcement to fill their coffers."