Pubdate: Mon, 06 Jun 2016
Source: Las Vegas Review-Journal (NV)
Copyright: 2016 Las Vegas Review-Journal
Bookmark: (Asset Forfeiture)


Police and prosecutors across the country have for years beaten back 
most serious efforts to reform civil forfeiture statutes, which allow 
law enforcement to seize property from people who have never been 
charged, let alone convicted, of any crime.

But signs abound that justice and due process may eventually prevail.

Civil forfeiture laws proliferated in the 1980s as part of the war on 
drugs and were intended to ensure that crime bosses didn't profit 
from their shadowy pursuits. But their aggressive application in many 
jurisdictions has also led to hundreds of high-profile abuses 
involving innocent people forced to surrender cash, homes, cars, 
jewelry and other valuables that the authorities merely suspected of 
being connected to a crime.

Innocent owners who seek to contest a forfeiture action face the 
arduous and expensive task of proving in civil court that the 
property itself is not the product of illegal activity. Many never 
bother when they learn that the legal expenses involved can exceed 
the value of the asset.

To make matters worse, most states, including Nevada, allow law 
enforcement agencies to retain a portion - if not all - of the money 
generated by forfeited property. This potentially creates an 
incentive for police to focus on areas that offer the greatest 
likelihood of financial reward.

During the 2015 Legislature, law enforcement lobbyists successfully 
neutered a sensible bill addressing the issue. But positive trends 
have emerged.

New Mexico last year became the second state to outlaw civil 
forfeiture outright. Other states have taken steps in that direction, 
strengthening protection for property owners or demanding a criminal 
conviction before prosecutors may initiate forfeiture proceedings.

Now there's momentum for change in Washington, also.

Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner, a Wisconsin Republican who formerly chaired 
the House Judiciary Committee, last month introduced legislation that 
would beef up protections for innocent property owners who find 
themselves ensnared in the Alice in Wonderland world of federal forfeiture law.

The DUE PROCESS Act includes a number of worthwhile reforms, 
including language that would impose a higher burden on federal 
agencies to justify seizures. In addition, it would make it easier 
for property owners to contest forfeitures and recover fees while 
also ensuring that indigent owners have legal counsel when fighting 
for their belongings. It also establishes transparency measures 
involving forfeiture revenues.

The bill passed the Judiciary Committee in late May and now awaits a 
vote on the floor.

Civil forfeiture abuses represent an affront to the cherished 
concepts of private property and due process. At the very least, law 
enforcement officials should have to secure a criminal conviction 
before pursuing an individual's assets. Short of that, however, Rep. 
Sensenbrenner's bill represents an encouraging step forward.
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