Skip Navigation

Race and Civil Asset Forfeiture: A Disparate Impact Hypothesis

October 1, 2010
By Mary Murphy

This paper examines how socioeconomic factors influence government police departments’ use of civil asset forfeiture procedures.

mallet and scale

This paper, written by University of Texas School of Law’s Mary Murphy and published in Texas Journal on Civil Liberties & Civil Rights, examines how socioeconomic factors influence government police departments’ use of civil asset forfeiture procedures, causing criminal justice to be applied unequally.

Civil asset forfeiture allows the government to punish individuals who are not guilty, Murphy writes.

“Within the framework of drug enforcement, the government is entitled to the money from proceeds of drug trafficking, and can use civil asset forfeiture in order to obtain those proceeds,” Murphy writes. “However, civil asset forfeiture is problematic because the standard ofproof required to take the property is lower than the standard of proof required to find the property owner guilty of a crime. This is in conflict with the criminal justice system's value of culpability associated with crime, as it allows punishment of an individual who is not guilty in the legal sense of the word.”

Fighting civil asset forfeiture claims costs individuals time and money, Murphy writes, and the defending one’s private-property rights is rigged in favor of the government and the status quo.

“Besides the difficulty of travel, court appearances require a disruption in the lives of the property owners that can be difficult to overcome,” Murphy writes. “The legislature has also had difficulty with successfully enacting civil asset forfeiture reforms. The fact that civil asset forfeiture is indeed civil, and not criminal, also removes certain constitutional protections afforded to criminal defendants. The government’s seizure of property is considered ‘less serious’ than the deprivation of an individual’s liberty through a criminal trial, so principles such as due process of law and the right to an attorney are not available for civil asset forfeiture.”