drug war seizure

Citizens Arise Against Forfeiture Laws
assets property rights

Protecting Private Property Against Government/Criminals

This editorial appeared recently in the Florida Times-Union.

It seems unthinkable that the American Civil Liberties Union would be on the same side as former Rep. Jack Metcalf, R-Wash., one of the most authoritarian members of the U.S. House back in the 1990s. But asset forfeiture is not a practice that people of good conscience can support, regardless where they stand politically.

Metcalf and the ACLU are collecting signatures to force a ballot initiative that, if approved by Washington voters, would ban the government seizure of property until after the owner has been convicted of a crime.

In Washington, as in many other states, law-enforcement agencies legally can seize the property of a suspected criminal -- and, even if found not guilty, he may never get it back. The accused can file a lawsuit, if he can afford the legal fees, but the burden is on him to convince the court that it should be returned.

Fox News reports police agencies oppose the initiative because they confiscate $4 million worth of property from "drug suspects" annually and they say that money has become an essential part of their budgets during lean times.

But it's bizarre to suggest confiscation is an acceptable way of raising money to fight crime.

When initially proposed, asset forfeiture laws were portrayed as a means to "hit big drug dealers where it hurts most -- in their pocketbooks." Police would confiscate their yachts, which probably were purchased with money obtained illegally anyway, and use the sales proceeds for manpower and equipment to catch more criminals.

But, in most states, forfeitures haven't been limited to drug dealers -- or necessarily to those guilty of anything. In too many cases, police agencies have resisted returning property to those found innocent.

The loss of personal property is acceptable, as part of a court-ordered punishment for a crime. But it is unacceptable purely as a revenue-raising scheme.

Metcalf and the ACLU don't have much time. They must collect nearly 200,000 votes by Jan. 4. If they are able to explain the issue properly, and voters aren't too distracted by government war against Afghanistan, the initiative probably will make the ballot and be passed overwhelmingly.

The ACLU is active in most states. If it were to mount similar ballot drives elsewhere, it probably would have support across the political spectrum.


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