The Indiana Senate on Tuesday voted 37-8 to pass a bill that would give the government broad powers to seize assets from people suspected of “unlawful assembly,” which, under state law, is defined as “an assembly of five (5) or more persons whose common object is to commit an unlawful act, or a lawful act by unlawful means.”
If that sounds hazy, that’s because it is—perhaps intentionally so. “The one thing we know is that vague laws are often enforced as broadly as they possibly can be,” says Sam Gedge, an attorney at the legal nonprofit Institute for Justice, “and civil forfeiture is often enforced as much as it can be because the government stands to profit.”
That practice—civil forfeiture—is similarly foggy, a fitting accompaniment to unlawful assembly. The process allows the state to steal property and/or cash from people suspected of, charged with, or convicted of a criminal offense, depending on where you live. In Indiana, prosecutors need only to furnish a preponderance of the evidence to initiate forfeiture proceedings. They don’t need a criminal charge, much less a conviction.
The measure is part of a larger Senate package meant to bring the hammer down on violent riots, upping penalties for some of the inexcusable methods of protest employed over the summer in response to the police killing of George Floyd. It should go without saying that destroying or burning down businesses in your community should never be an appropriate response to racial injustice. Property rights are human rights, and many businesses that met their demise last summer were owned by the very people protesters claimed to stand for.
But why civil forfeiture would be an appropriate response belies the imagination. Foremost: It is already illegal to riot, already illegal to obstruct traffic, already illegal to commit arson, already illegal to burglarize. Under the Indiana Senate bill, for instance, rioting transitions from a Class A misdemeanor to a level six felony, meaning perpetrators would spend up to 2.5 years in prison and pay up to a $50,000 fine. People who commit those crimes will be prosecuted and punished accordingly.