Pubdate: Fri, 25 Jun 1999
Source: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette (AR)
Copyright: 1999, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Inc.
Author: Lance Gay, Scripps Howard News Service


WASHINGTON - In a victory for an unusual coalition of conservatives
and civil-liberties groups, the House voted Thursday to scale back the
authority of police and federal agents to confiscate property or money
from people who are never charged with a crime.

The vote was 375-48. In the Arkansas delegation, Republican Jay Dickey
and Democrats Marion Berry and Vic Snyder voted for the measure;
Republican Asa Hutchinson opposed it.

The legislation -- which sets a tougher new requirement that police
have "clear and convincing evidence" of criminal activity before
seizing property or money -- also got help from Sen. Orrin Hatch,
R-Utah, a longtime opponent of changing current law.

Hatch, Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, predicted "there's a
chance" the Senate might agree to the new seizure standard and send
the measure to President Clinton for his signature. The Justice
Department and police groups oppose the changes.

Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., House Judiciary Committee chairman and
sponsor of the measure, said anti-drug laws adopted during the Reagan
administration have resulted in abuses where police departments seized
property and money from innocent citizens, who were never involved in
any crime and were never charged.

Under current law, federal agents only need "probable cause" to
suspect property is involved in criminal activities to seize it, and
criminal charges are never brought in more than 80 percent of property
seizure cases, Hyde said.

"This is a throwback to the old Soviet system where justice is the
justice of the government, and the citizen doesn't have a chance,"
Hyde said.

He said diverse groups ranging from the Trial Lawyers Association, the
American Civil Liberties Union and the National Rifle Association
support restricting police seizures.

Hyde's bill also would require the government to provide lawyers to
help the poor sue for the return of property and would protect
innocent third parties from having their properties taken when police
find they were used for drugs or other criminal activities without
their approval or knowledge. The last measure is aimed at stopping
police from seizing the property of parents of drug dealers or
evicting innocent tenants from apartment buildings where drug dealing
is uncovered.

Rep. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said it is not fair for the government to
seize property from someone unconnected with a crime. "Most of us
cannot imagine losing property because of someone else's misdeeds," he

But Rep. Jim Ramstad, R-Minn., said making it more difficult for
police to seize property would devastate the budgets of police
departments across the country, since they rely on money raised from
property seizures for their budgets.

Ramstad, chairman of the House law-enforcement task force, said
Congress "would be aiding and abetting drug dealers by changing the
law." Under current law, people can sue within 10 days to get their
properties back if they believe police improperly took them, Ramstad

"This is not a time to disarm our soldiers," argued Arkansas'
Hutchinson, a former U.S. attorney who said Congress was sending a
signal to drug dealers that congressional resolve in the war on drugs
is weakening. But Hutchinson's effort to allow police to continue to
seize property under a weaker standard of a "preponderance of proof"
of criminal wrongdoing was defeated on a vote of 268-155.

Rep. Bob Barr, R-Ga., said the House-passed changes will have only a
minor effect on police departments, and he said California has already
adopted the requirement that police have "clear and convincing
evidence" before seizing property.

"There will be some slight crimping in law enforcement," he said, but
police still can take the property suspected of being used in drug
crimes and seize profits of illegal activities.

Rep. Charles Canady, R-Fla., said police have used the drug laws to
improperly seize the property of innocent people who have no
involvement with drugs. He cited the case of a Florida family whose
4,000-acre ranch was seized on the suspicion it was a landing strip
for a drug-carrying plane that crashed nearby.

The family fought for four years through the courts before getting
back their property when a judge ruled the police had no reason to
believe the family knew of any drug flights or that the farm was going
to be used as a landing strip, Canady said.

"Nobody in the United States of America should have to go through a
nightmare like this," said Rep. Ron Paul, R-Texas, "Is it too much in
America to say that people's property isn't taken unless you are
convicted of a crime?" 
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