Pubdate: Tues, 16 Mar 1999
Source: Cincinnati Post (OH)
Copyright: 1999 The Cincinnati Post


In January Hamilton County prosecutors spent hours convincing a jury that
Michael Nieman was an innocent victim, a jeweler murdered in his own bed by
a stripper girlfriend who just wanted his money.

As soon as the trial was over, federal prosecutors turned around and
launched legal proceedings to seize Nieman's house, vehicles, cash, jewelry
and other assets, arguing that he had really been a drug dealer, even though
he had absolutely no record of drug crimes. The Hamilton County sheriff
helped seize Nieman's estate.

An attorney for Nieman's daughter called it legalized stealing. The attorney
is right.

On Christmas Eve Corie Blount, a University of Cincinnati basketball star
who now plays in the NBA, was stopped along I-71 near Wilmington, ostensibly
because his 1995 Mercedes had tinted windows and did not have a license
plate on the front.

Blount was not charged with any crime (cynics say his crime was driving
while black) nor even arrested. But police nonetheless confiscated $19,435
in cash he happened to have in the car, on the basis of signals from a K-9
trained to smell drug residue on currency.

There were no drugs in the car. Blount, by all accounts one of the good guys
in pro sports, doesn't have even a minor arrest on his record.

Moreover, a K-9 drug dog could walk into any bank in the nation and detect
drug residue on 30 percent to 90 percent of the bills in the vault.

Yet Blount had to spend his own money on attorneys to prove a negative: that
the money wasn't from a drug transaction, and that the government should
give it back to him.

That's outrageous.

In New York City, the police have started to confiscate the cars of people
charged with drunk driving. They keep them, even though the person hasn't
been convicted of anything.

These are but a few examples of how local, state and federal asset
forfeiture laws have gotten out of control.

Fortunately, their overdue reform has a powerful advocate, House Judiciary
Committee Chairman Henry Hyde, of impeachment fame. Hyde has compiled a long
list of abuses and horror stories of people whose property was summarily
confiscated and returned damaged if it was returned at all.

Asset forfeiture was originally intended as a tool in the war on drugs. The
idea was that drug traffickers should lose the cars, planes or boats they
used for smuggling and that they should not be allowed to retain houses and
other property they acquired with drug money.

But the scope of forfeiture quickly broadened.

Says Hyde, "Federal and state officials now have the power to seize your
business, home, bank account, records and personal property - all without
indictment, hearing or trial."

And often without even being charged. One Detroit woman lost her car because
her husband used it - without her knowledge - to pick up a prostitute.

Another insidious feature of forfeiture is that law enforcement agencies use
the proceeds to fund their operations. New York even plans to hand over
seized cars for city officials to drive. The opportunity for conflict of
interest, let alone real corruption, is too great.

Getting the property back can be an expensive battle. The Justice Department
claims that only 15 percent of 60,000 annual forfeitures are contested, but
many victims cannot afford the attorneys and protracted court battles to
regain their possessions.

Hyde's reform bill would retain asset forfeiture as a useful law enforcement
technique but add a critical protection: The government would have to
justify the seizure with clear and convincing evidence.

Other provisions would allow the courts to release property to its owners
pending disposition of the case; allow owners to sue for damage to property
while in government custody, and provide lawyers for poor people caught up
in forfeiture proceedings.

The property of innocent owners, like the Detroit woman with the straying
husband, would be protected.

The Supreme Court has upheld forfeiture laws, but even so, those laws
violate fundamental American precepts of fairness and innocence until proven

Congress and states such as Ohio should sharply curb their pre- conviction
asset forfeiture laws. And if the abuse continues, legislators or the courts
should get rid of them entirely.

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