The Wall Street Journal on Alvarez v. Smith

The Wall Street Journal has an editorial urging the Supreme Court to rule in favor of the property owners in Alvarez v. Smith, an important property rights case that I have been trying to draw attention to for a long time (see my recent Findlaw column on it and previous posts on the subject here and here):

With states and cities struggling with deficits, one fertile source of revenue has been money or property seized by police in possible connection with crimes. Not to be left behind, Illinois has pursued this tactic aggressively, using a law which encourages both police departments and prosecutors to take property for forfeiture, long before the accused ever get their day in court.

This practice was challenged at the Supreme Court recently in Alvarez v. Smith, where six people allege that police use of the Illinois Drug Asset Forfeiture Procedure Act violated their right to due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. Though forfeiture laws are designed to strip criminals of ill-gotten gains, three of the six were never charged with a crime. All six had their property or money taken without a warrant and had to wait for months or years without a hearing on the legitimacy of the forfeiture…

Under Illinois law, the state has 187 days after property is seized to file forfeiture proceedings. Meanwhile, of forfeited funds seized, 25% lands in the lap of the prosecutor’s office. Another 65% goes to the department that seized the property, giving police added incentive to take the property to pad their budgets. Justice Sonia Sotomayor noted this police incentive with concern….

We’re all for relieving criminals of illegal profits, but civil forfeiture laws must be used with caution and oversight lest they infringe on fundamental rights. Alvarez v. Smith provides an opportunity to restore the balance of justice to citizens.

The points emphasized in the WSJ editorial are similar to those I and others have made previously. However, the WSJ piece is still noteworthy because it shows that at least some of the national media have finally begun to give the case the attention it warrants. It’s also telling that even the generally pro-law enforcement WSJ editorial page isn’t willing to endorse the government’s position in this case.