What kind of legal history might account for the unique and continued practice of forfeiture in the United States? Law enforcement, as many recent writers have argued, has grown increasingly dependent on this fail-safe way to gain revenue, since civil asset forfeiture has few procedural safeguards. Unlike criminal forfeiture (in personam), civil forfeiture generally proceeds against the offending property (in rem), not against the person. A piece of property does not have the rights of a person; so, instead of proving crime beyond “a reasonable doubt,” suspicion equal to “probable cause” is enough. Your property is guilty until you prove it innocent. With civil forfeiture, owners do not have to be charged with a crime, let alone be convicted, to lose homes, cars, cash—or dogs. This effort to sharpen our understanding of dispossession is preeminently a legal project. It takes its meaning and garners its effects from the division between value and disregard, things and persons, human and nonhuman. In analyzing how legal reasoning has historically contributed to literal expropriation, I examine the generally invisible nexus of animality, human marginalization, and juridical authority.
Colin Dayan is Robert Penn Warren Professor of the Humanities and professor of law at Vanderbilt University. Her books include The Story of Cruel and Unusual, The Law Is a White Dog, With Dogs at the Edge of Life, and her just published memoir, In the Belly of Her Ghost. Her Animal Quintet is forthcoming, and she is currently at work on a book on civil forfeiture and civil life in the United States, tentatively titled Guilty Things.