Civil asset forfeiture is based on an ancient legal fiction that property can be guilty even if the owner is innocent. In a 1996 Supreme Court case, Tina Bennis didn't know her husband John used their car to have sex with a prostitute but lost the car anyway because the property was guilty even if she wasn't. Recently liberal and conservative justices have expressed doubts about CAF. Liberal and conservative groups—the ACLU and CATO—make common cause for reform. In the past several years, 26 states have passed fairer laws. But police can circumvent state reforms by having the federal government "adopt" the property and use the lax federal forfeiture standard to seize it. Reform in Congress also has failed. The bipartisan impetus for reform and spotty results create a favorable environment for meaningful change.
How does civil asset forfeiture work? An image-based explainer.
Missouri law requires convictions before a state asset forfeiture and earmarks seized cash for schools. But Phelps County seizes millions from people not guilty of a crime and the cash goes to police.
The Supreme Court decision limiting police seizure of property has spurred a bill in Missouri to stop police from seizing millions from people who have not committed a crime or carried drugs.
Sgt. Carmelo Crivello of Phelps County is a legend along the section of I-44 he has patrolled for 20 years. He focuses on the westbound lanes where cars carry cash. The money pays for jails and guns.