- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 13, 2000

House Republicans are right to promote legislation that would reform federal asset forfeiture laws. Intended to help law-enforcement combat drug lords by thwarting their ability to launder drug money, asset-forfeiture laws have proved to be a blunt instrument that often unjustly waylays the property of ordinary citizens on the flimsiest of legal pretexts.

The House legislation adopted on a voice vote Tuesday would raise the evidentiary requirement that would have to be met before private property could be taken from an individual. Under existing law, all that is needed to seize property is "probable cause" which in practice has constituted little more than suspicion of illegal activity before officers may seize the belongings, real property, or cash, of a person they think may be involved in drug-dealing or other illegal activity. No arrest let alone conviction is necessary before the authorities may lawfully take cars, airplanes, real estate or cash. And even if the accused person is later acquitted or the charges dropped, it is up to him or her to demonstrate why the property ought to be returned (as if innocence were not sufficient reason). Call it forfeit justice.

The Justice Department seized nearly $500 million worth of assets linked to alleged criminal activity during 1998 alone and the practice has become hugely popular with law-enforcement departments, which often benefit directly from the proceeds. But horror stories have accumulated and made the news; stories of people whose only crime was to run afoul of some bureaucrat or cop's idea of proper dress, conduct or business practices. For example, people traveling with large sums of cash their own money have had it taken from them on no more substantive pretext than its being "unusual" in this day of credit cards and electronic commerce, to carry around a wad of bills. General aviation pilots have had their airplanes confiscated (or ransacked), again, on no more solid evidentiary grounds than some government official's suspicion however that's defined.

The Washington Post, in a recent story on the subject, detailed the ordeal of physician Richard Lowe a quirky fellow with memories of the Great Depression who kept $317,000 in cash in shoe boxes at his home before depositing the money with a Roanoke, Va., bank. The "unusual" activity attracted the attention of the FBI and Dr. Lowe's account, representing his life savings, was seized. It took him almost six years to recover his money, and during the appeals process, his health deteriorated, he developed high blood pressure, and had to be hospitalized for stress. There are many, many similar stories of innocent people who've run afoul of asset-forfeiture laws and either lost their possessions permanently or had to spend thousands of dollars in an attempt to get them back.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde of Illinois described the strong-arm tactics of asset forfeiture as "more appropriate for the Soviet Union than the United States." Amen to that. The House measure has bipartisan support, too. Rep. John Conyers of Michigan said, "Who would have believed that under our current law the government could confiscate a person's private property on a mere showing of probable cause?"

If it passes the Senate, the bill would require "a preponderance of the evidence" that any property seized is linked to illegal activity a higher standard than the vague suspicion/probable cause standard of the current law. While not as strong a protection as the original "clear and convincing evidence" proposed by Mr. Hyde, the new standard, if approved, should add some much-needed balance to a process that has become fraught with abuse. The government will also have to compensate property owners for their legal fees upon successful appeal of a forfeiture proceeding. Republican lawmakers are to be applauded for addressing the asset-forfeiture issue before the practice gets more out of control than it already is.

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