Do you know what asset forfeiture is? Answer the question before you read the story.
Civil asset forfeiture is a controversial but legal practice that allows police to seize cash and property from people without charging them with a crime. If police simply suspect that you acquired something as a result of illegal activity, they can take it from you. If you want to get it back, the onus is on you to prove you got it legally.
As you might imagine, a lot of folks are up in arms about this. But reform has been slow. New Mexico and Montana are the only two states that have placed significant limits on the process. A similar effort in California recently died in the state legislature.
One possible reason? Most Americans aren't even aware that civil asset forfeiture is happening.
According to a recent Huffington Post/YouGov poll, nearly three-quarters of Americans haven't even heard of the term "civil asset forfeiture." So pollsters got around this by asking a specific question: “To the best of your knowledge, when can law enforcement permanently seize money or other property from a person?”
Only 30 percent of Americans correctly answered that property could be seized on the basis of suspicion alone. A much larger plurality -- 40 percent -- think that police need a conviction in order to permanently seize goods. But that is not true.
When asked when police should be able to seize property from citizens, an overwhelming majority -- 71 percent -- say this should happen only after a conviction.
The amazing thing about this finding is how much agreement there is across political and demographic groups. Seventy-two percent of Democrats say a conviction should be necessary, as do 77 percent of Republicans. Sixty-eight percent of blacks and 73 percent of whites agree.
Part of the reason why so few people are worked up about civil asset forfeiture, even though many oppose it on principle, may have something to do with the term itself. "Civil asset forfeiture" is a bland, starchy phrase. You can feel your eyes start to glaze over as you read it. It is a perfect piece of bureaucratic language -- it obscures its true meaning behind a thicket of legalese.
If we called civil asset forfeiture "cops taking your stuff" or "the government seizing your cash" or "drug cops raiding your house, taking your daughter's birthday money, and stringing your lingerie up from a ceiling fan," perhaps people would pay more attention.