Pubdate: Friday June 25th 02:24 EDT
Source: Associated Press
Copyright: 1999 Associated Press
Author: Cassandra Burrell, Associated Press


WASHINGTON - The House voted to curb the federal
government's ability to seize private property -- cash, securities,
cars, boats and real estate -- suspected of being linked to crime.

Too many innocent citizens have been deprived of their possessions
without due process, House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde,
R-Ill., said during debate on the House floor Thursday before the
measure was approved, 375-48. No companion bill has been introduced in
the Senate. Police have used civil asset forfeiture for such things as
shutting down drug houses quickly by taking possession of them or
hitting drug traffickers in the wallet even before charges are filed.

On Thursday, both Republicans and Democrats criticized current federal
law, which lets officers seize property simply because they suspect it
was involved in wrongdoing.

``They don't have to convict you. They don't even have to charge you with a
crime. But they have your property,'' Hyde said. ``This is a throwback to the
old Soviet Union, where justice is the justice of the government and the
citizen doesn't have a chance.''
Added Democratic Rep. William Delahunt of Massachusetts: ``Think about that:
Eighty percent of those whose property are seized are never even charged with
a crime.''
Asset forfeiture is a powerful anti-crime tool, but it also can be an
opportunity for abuse, especially for law enforcement agencies hungry for
money to supplement tight budgets, said supporters of the new limits.
``In many jurisdictions, it has become a monetary tail wagging the law
enforcement dog,'' said Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga.

The bill passed by the House -- introduced by Hyde and the Judiciary
Committee's senior Democrat, Rep. John Conyers of Michigan -- would
require the federal government to prove with ``clear and convincing''
evidence the property was eligible for forfeiture if an owner files a
legal challenge. The legislation would also: --Require officers to
prove criminality, not simply allege it. Current law requires property
owners to prove they are not connected with the alleged crime.
- --Require the government to give owners notice before seizing
property. Owners would have 30 days -- compared with the current 10
days -- to challenge a seizure in court.

- --Enable a judge to release property to the owner if continued
government possession would pose a substantial hardship.

- --Allow judges to appoint counsel for poor defendants. --Let owners
sue the government for negligence if their property is lost or
damaged. --Allow some owners of seized cash to receive interest if a
judge orders the money returned.

- --Apply only to civil asset forfeitures, not criminal ones, although
civil forfeitures often are involved in criminal cases. It would not
affect state forfeiture laws.

In 1998, the federal government seized about $449 million worth of
property through civil and criminal forfeitures. Some of the proceeds
were sent to state and local law enforcement agencies that helped in
investigations. The Clinton administration said the Hyde-Conyers bill
``would have a serious negative effect on the federal government's
ability to combat drug trafficking, alien smuggling, terrorism,
consumer fraud and many other criminal offenses.'' But the House
rejected, 268-155, an alternative the administration favored. It would
have let police seize property based on a lower standard of proof -- a
``preponderance'' of the evidence rather than ``clear and convincing''
evidence. Opponents said it would have expanded the federal
government's power to seize property, not curbed it.

The bill is H.R. 1658.
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