At Last! A Chance to Cut the Government's Abuse of Asset Forfeiture Laws
Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act in Congress
WASHINGTON -- Reps. Henry Hyde (R-IL), John Conyers (D-MI), Bob Barr (R-GA), and Barney Frank (D-MA), last seen bickering loudly during the House impeachment hearings, are back together today in a much friendlier fashion. Each is a cosponsor of the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act, a bill written by Hyde and scheduled to be introduced this week. While the bill has important policy implications, it will also be fascinating to watch the old enemies come together around something they all support.
"Civil asset forfeiture is such a gross misuse of police powers that it's easy to understand why lawmakers representing a broad spectrum of ideologies are against it," Drug Policy Foundation Senior Policy Analyst Scott Ehlers said. "Civil asset forfeiture comes awfully close to being legalized theft."
Under the guise of fighting the war on drugs, law enforcement officers can seize your home, car, or money without ever charging you with a crime. Known as civil asset forfeiture (CAF), it is one of the most abused police powers in America today.
Civil asset forfeiture is based on the legal fiction that the property that facilitates or is connected with a crime is itself guilty and can be seized and tried in civil court (e.g., United States v. One 1974 Cadillac Eldorado Sedan). Under civil forfeiture law, the government can take a person's property on the basis of "probable cause," which is the same minimal standard required for police to obtain a search warrant. In order to get the property returned, an owner must prove by a "preponderance of the evidence" -- a higher standard of proof -- that his/her property was not used to facilitate a crime.
Whereas under criminal law the defendant is innocent until proved guilty, in CAF proceedings the property is presumed guilty and the owner has to prove otherwise to get it back. CAF funds often turn into unregulated police slush funds. When police departments are allowed to keep what they take, CAF funds exist beyond the purview of legislative or budgetary oversight so it's fairly common for police to misuse CAF funds. Nearly a dozen newspapers have documented this, including the Pittsburgh Press, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1991 for exposing CAF corruption.
"That police can take property without anyone being charged or found guilty of a crime is an abomination," Ehlers said. "Civil asset forfeiture basically provides police with a way to run around the Constitution by allowing them to punish someone without having to go through the criminal process."
A zeal for CAF funds has occasionally led to the use of "profiling," the targeting of minorities by police which New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman recently admitted was standard practice among the New Jersey State Police. CAF- related profiling has been documented in Louisiana, Florida, Washington and Maryland.
Hyde's bill, which was blocked by a cash-loving Justice Department in 1997, would make numerous changes to civil forfeiture law, including:
* Forcing the government to prove that seized property is related to a crime, as opposed to the current practice of property owners having to prove that their property is not guilty;
* Create an "innocent owner" defense, whereby property owners unaware of criminal activity occurring on their property could recover their property;
* Provide indigent defendants with appointed counsel; and
* Eliminate the cost bond requirement, which currently requires property owners to pay up to $5,000 or 10 percent of the seized property's value in order to contest the seizure in court.
This news report comes from the Drug Policy Foundation. For more information, visit http://www.dpf.org and visit Forfeiture Endangers American Rights at http://www.fear.org
And you may want to review Fred Foldvary's editorial on this subject.
Please support this bill! At the very least, ask your Congressperson for their opinion on the bill, so they know you're watching. And share your opinions with The Progress Report:
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