In America you’re innocent until proven guilty, and the Constitution provides protections — for instance, the right to a lawyer and a speedy trial — to ensure that you can’t be unfairly punished.
But you can forget all that if state or local police “suspect” that your cash, car or even your home might have somehow been involved in a crime. In that case, they can grab the loot and keep most of it to benefit their own departments without going to court.
You can try to get your property back, but the burden is on the victim of a seizure to prove that the money was not derived from a crime.
This federal program was curtailed in 2015 by the Obama administration. But Attorney General Jeff Sessions is reviving it. He calls it a “key tool that helps law enforcement defund organized crime, take back ill-gotten gains … and it weakens the criminals and the cartels.”
Not so fast, Mr. Attorney General.
OPPOSING VIEW: Don’t abolish asset forfeiture
Civil asset forfeiture, expanded in the 1970s as a tool in the war on drugs, has become unmoored from its original intent to take the profit out of crime. Local police, in a sharing program with the Justice Department, often use it against ordinary citizens who happen to be carrying cash that police find suspicious.
Its victims — many of whom are never charged, let alone convicted of any crime — have included hapless drivers carrying cash to renovate a house, buy a used car or pay for dental work. Police often grab their cars, too, leaving them stranded.
Ming Tong Liu, a Chinese-born American, was driving to Louisiana to buy a restaurant when he was stopped and ticketed for speeding in Alabama. When police found $75,195 in cash in his car, they brought in a drug-sniffing dog, which “alerted” on the cash. Though no drugs were found and no charges filed, police seized the money. It took Liu 10 months, two lawyers and two claims to get back his family’s savings. By then, the restaurant deal had fallen through.
Many people do not have the wherewithal to fight back by retaining an attorney specializing in this complex issue and going to court. Or the amounts are so small, victims simply let the money go.
But that money adds up: From 2000 to 2013, state and local police took in $4.7 billion from the Justice Department’s federal-state civil asset forfeiture programs.
Fourteen states have recognized the unfairness and now require a criminal conviction before someone’s assets can be taken, which is as it should be. Several more states have placed other limits on seizures.
But Sessions’ restart of the sharing program would allow police in states with tough laws to get around them by working with the feds. Supporters of the program point to “safeguards” that Sessions has added. The problem is, a few new directives can’t fix a program that at its core turns the justice system upside down.
Ending this program is no dewy-eyed liberal cause. The ACLU, the libertarian Institute for Justice, the Koch brothers and other groups from all parts of the ideological spectrum called on Congress last month to roll back and reform civil asset forfeiture.
In March, conservative Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas wrote that the system “has led to egregious and well-chronicled abuses,” adding that seizures “frequently target the poor and other groups least able to defend their interests.”
Legally seizing assets as evidence after an arrest or retaining them through a legal process after a conviction is fully justified, but not just on some vague suspicion.
The nation’s top law enforcement officer has no business championing a program that allows police to victimize helpless citizens for the benefit of their own agencies. That’s not law enforcement. It’s bounty hunting. The program, virtually killed off in 2015, should remain buried.
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