Louisiana is one of the worst states in the country in regards to civil asset forfeiture. While some states require a criminal conviction before property can be seized, Louisiana allows private property to be seized whether someone is found guilty of a crime or not. Louisiana offers little to no protection against frivolous seizures which leaves every Louisianan exposed to potentially abusive government seizures of their private property.
One way the Pelican State can offer more protection against unjust government seizure is by implementing a minimum value that can be seized. A minimum value restriction for asset forfeiture would prevent the government from seizing property that falls beneath a certain threshold. This would reduce the incentive for the government to seize low value property and better protect private citizens. Since there is less incentive to seize average Louisianans’ private property, civil asset forfeiture would only be used for its original purpose, higher priority criminal activity such as drug trafficking.
Nationally, asset forfeitures are generally small value items. The median currency forfeiture is less than $1,300 nationwide, so the cost of contesting the forfeiture is often more than the property is worth. Additionally, property owners have no right to an attorney in civil proceedings, so they must hire private legal representation to fight to get their property returned. This creates an environment that makes it too costly to fight the state to return their property even when a property owner wasn’t arrested, charged, or convicted.
Many states and the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) have implemented minimum value thresholds for seizures. The DOJ’s policy is not to engage in forfeitures unless the value of the property is over $5,000 for vehicles and $2,000 for currency. Likewise, Alabama set their minimum for vehicle seizures at $5,000.
A minimum value threshold does not solve the inherent problem of innocent people’s property being seized, but it is a dramatic improvement over the status quo in Louisiana. Understandably, stakeholders may not agree with every reform option, but instituting some form of a minimum value threshold would create a degree of protection for private law abiding citizens that currently does not exist. To create a Louisiana where everyone can flourish, we must reform our civil asset forfeiture process and restore the principle of due process.