Pubdate: Mon, 02 Feb 2015
Source: Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN)
Copyright: 2015 The Commercial Appeal


A series of articles in The Washington Post exposed the problem last 
fall, and U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric Holder announced recently that federal 
agencies, with few exceptions, will no longer take possession of 
assets seized by local law enforcement agencies when no crime has been proved.

Tennessee officials say the decision will have little impact on the 
activities of local law enforcement agencies, but the attorney 
general's decision to step down from the widespread use of civil 
asset forfeiture should prompt close scrutiny of the practice 
throughout the state and beyond.

The newspaper's reporting certainly opened a lot of eyes to a 
practice that had escaped widespread public attention until abuses 
were exposed.

As it turns out, the forfeiture of property such as cash, cars and 
the like is not always linked to the commission of proven crimes. The 
practice, it can be argued, has openly flouted the protections 
offered to individuals by the Fourth Amendment, which prohibits 
unreasonable searches and seizures.

Specifically, Holder ended the federal government's involvement in a 
program known as "Equitable Sharing," which was developed during a 
period in which most states had neither their own asset forfeiture 
laws not the legal authority to forfeit seized assets.

The program is no longer necessary, Holder said, because states now 
have civil or criminal asset forfeiture laws of their own.

Those states include Tennessee, where, according to The Associated 
Press, the state's forfeiture laws provide few restrictions and will 
be subjected to examination by the General Assembly's Senate 
Government Operations Committee during the upcoming session. 
Legislation specifically limiting seizures to cases in which a link 
to criminal activity has been proved in court should emerge from this 
discussion and be passed without objection.

As the Post demonstrated, a program that began with good intentions - 
to starve illegal drug cartels of vital resources by seizing their 
property - has corrupted some law enforcement and government agencies 
by making asset forfeiture a necessary source of revenue to maintain 
drug enforcement activities and other police functions.

The newspaper carefully documented cases in which large amounts of 
cash and other property had wound up in government hands following 
its liberation from private citizens who had done nothing wrong - 
simply on the suspicion that the property had been used in the 
commission of illegal activities.

This is not to propose relaxing the effort to intercept traffic in 
illegal and dangerous drugs. Legitimate forfeiture can be used as an 
effective deterrent to the activities of violent drug dealers. It can 
used to help rescue Tennesseans who are addicted to insidiously 
harmful substances.

But as important as those missions might be, we must make sure that 
innocent people are not caught in the crossfire in a misdirected war on drugs.
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