Pubdate: Fri, 25 Jun 1999
Source: San Francisco Chronicle (CA)
Copyright: 1999 San Francisco Chronicle
Author: Stephen Labaton, New York Times


Both parties want to rein in police power to take property

An unusual coalition of liberals and conservatives persuaded the House of
Representatives yesterday to approve legislation to make it much harder for
federal and state law enforcement authorities to confiscate property before
they bring criminal charges in narcotics and other cases.

By a lopsided vote of 375 to 48, the House for the first time rolled back
nearly 30 years of criminal measures passed at the height of what were then
called wars on drugs and terrorism. Those measures substantially broadened
the authority of federal and state authorities to seize houses, cars, cash,
boats, planes and other assets before obtaining criminal convictions.

Without actually threatening a veto, the Clinton administration opposed the
legislation, saying it would make it more difficult to combat crime. No
similar legislation has been introduced in the Senate, but supporters of the
House bill said that its huge victory would put pressure on the Senate to

The measure -- which raises the legal standard for seizure, expands possible
legal defenses and provides lawyers to indigent property-owners involved in
such cases -- attracted a remarkable coalition of lawmakers and
organizations across a broad ideological spectrum.

Representative Henry Hyde, R- Ill., who has spent six years trying to pass
the measure, said it ``puts civil liberties back in our judicial system.''
He called the current system of confiscation before conviction ``a throwback
to the old Soviet Union.''

After those remarks, the other House Judiciary Committee members who rose to
endorse the measure included Representatives John Conyers, D-Mich., Bob
Barr, R-Ga., and Barney Frank, D-Mass.

What made their alliance so incongruous was the fact that less than a year
ago, the four lawmakers were engaged in a bitterly emotional debate over the
impeachment of President Clinton, first in the House Judiciary Committee and
later on the floor of the House. Hyde, the conservative chairman of the
committee, and Frank, one of its ranking liberal Democrats, are often foils
in law enforcement matters.

But yesterday, they were not only unified in their support of the measure,
but also in accord in denouncing an administration-backed weaker substitute
that the House rejected.

Frank was joined in denouncing both current law and the administration's
measure by Barr, another traditional political opponent, who said the
existing law has ``become the monetary tail wagging the law enforcement

``Balancing the important needs of law enforcement means striking the
criminal where it hurts, in the pocketbook, but not with a blunderbuss,''
said Barr.

But opponents of the measure said it goes too far.

``Let us not turn back the clock on the war on drugs,'' said Representative
Jim Ramstad, D-Minn., a supporter of the alternative bill that failed.

With a growing number of cases of innocent people seeing their assets
seized, the lawmakers adopted a bill that would require the government to
prove ``by clear and convincing evidence'' that the property was subject to
forfeiture because of illegal use.

Under current law, the burden of proof lies with the person whose property
was seized, and the government has to show only ``probable cause'' that the
property is subject to forfeiture, a fairly easy standard to satisfy.

In recent years, public sentiment on the issue has begun to turn, as
reflected by the breadth of the coalition pushing for the measure: the
American Bar Association, the National Rifle Association, the American Civil
Liberties Union, Americans for Tax Reform, the American Bankers Association,
the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, the United States
Chamber of Commerce, and pilot, boating, hotel and housing organizations.

Faced with that coalition and powerful anecdotal evidence of abusive
government conduct, critics of the new legislation were unable to counter
the growing perception that federal forfeiture laws are being stretched
beyond reasonable limits.

Among the examples cited during the congressional debate was the case of a
landscaper, Willie Jones, who went to a Nashville, Tenn., airport with
$9,000 in cash to travel to Houston to buy nursery stock. He was detained at
the ticket desk after paying for his plane ticket in cash, and he had the
rest of his cash confiscated after officers told him that anyone carrying
that much money had to be involved in drugs.

Perhaps the most compelling example of abuses of the law was the seizure by
the U.S. attorney's office in Houston of the Red Carpet Motel last year.
There were no allegations that the hotel's owners had participated in any
crimes. But prosecutors claimed the management had failed to implement
``security measures'' dictated by law enforcement officials, including
raising room rates to make them less affordable to criminals.

In California, legislators are considering two bills to increase the use of
civil asset forfeiture. One, pending in a state Senate committee, would
subject individuals who may have profited from white-collar crimes such as
embezzlement to property forfeiture in the same way drug suspects forfeit
homes and cars.

Another bill would make it easier for police to seize personal property from
anyone facing pornography charges, not just those who profit from

- ---
MAP posted-by: Don Beck