When the public is more afraid of the cops than the bad guys, the system is broken. There’s reason for some law-abiding Americans to worry about their pocketbook becoming lighter after a visit from the lawman. Bonnie and Clyde never pretended to be anything but robbers.
A 64-year-old Texas woman, for example, was accused of being a drug dealer simply because she was carrying cash in her pickup truck from the sale of her land. The cops took her money, though she had never been convicted of a crime in her life. She had to sue in federal court to get all of her money back.
A family grocery store in Michigan was threatened by the IRS for “money laundering” because they handled money in the way their insurance policy required. Car owners giving friends a lift in New York City suffer their vehicles seized because the Taxi Commission thinks they’re operating an illegal cab.
Outrages like these have happened in every state in the union. Civil asset forfeiture is popular among law enforcement because it’s a lucrative racket. Concepts like innocent until proven guilty, due process and other constitutional rights don’t apply. The victims are left with nothing but frustration, disappointment and rage.
Forfeiture rules are based on a legal fiction that cash, vehicles, and inanimate objects are “guilty” of committing crimes. A pickup truck doesn’t have constitutional rights, so the police can take and keep the truck if they can say the “preponderance of the evidence” shows it was likely involved in a crime. The owner of the cash or property seized does not need his day in court because he might not have been charged with a crime. The law, as Mr. Dickens observed, is truly “a ass.”
Sen. Rand Paul of Kentucky wants to stop this abuse with a bill that he calls the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration Act. It would eliminate the profit motive by requiring law enforcement agencies to send the money seized directly into the Treasury. The act would require cops to follow all applicable state laws, which would put a stop to local jurisdictions that have used federal seizure statutes to evade strict laws. Some states, such as Minnesota, have cracked down on forfeiture abuse.
Mr. Paul would raise the bar for consideration of evidence, requiring “clear and convincing evidence” before anything can be seized. That means an officer must prove that it is “substantially more likely than not” that an item was involved in a crime, which is an important step in the right direction.
Given the gridlock in Washington, this is a proposal that ought to advance, given its wide appeal across party lines. The American Civil Liberties Union has been outspoken on the need to rein in forfeiture laws, and so have conservative and libertarian groups, such as the Heritage Foundation and Cato Institute.
Democrats and Republicans alike ought to put this forfeiture reform on President Obama’s desk. It’s a golden opportunity for a bit of bipartisanship in a town that could use some.