Pubdate: Fri, 25 Jun 1999
Source: Washington Times (DC)
Copyright: 1999 News World Communications, Inc.
Author: Sean Scully, The Washington Times


The House voted Thursday to limit federal power to seize property of
people who have never been convicted of a crime, saying police and
prosecutors have gone too far in their war on drugs.

"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,"
said Rep. Henry J. Hyde, the bill's sponsor.

Under current law, police "can seize your property on the weakest,
most flimsy, diaphanous charge," said Mr. Hyde, Illinois Republican
and chairman of the Judiciary Committee.

Rep. Bill Delahunt, Massachusetts Democrat, agreed. "Think about
that," he said. "Eighty percent of those whose property are seized are
never even charged with a crime."

The bill, passed 375-48, puts a strong burden of proof on government
prosecutors to show that a property owner was aware of criminal
activity or failed to take reasonable precautions to stop it. That,
supporters argued, will protect innocent property owners -- such as
absentee landlords or spouses --from the wrongdoing of friends,
relatives and tenants over whom they have no control.

"If you own something and somebody else commits a crime with it or in
it, you are perfectly innocent," Mr. Hyde said.

Under current law, the federal government can seize any property --
including cash, homes, vehicles -- suspected of being used in certain
crimes whether or not the owner has been charged, or is even suspected
of, taking part of in that crime.

For example, according to testimony before the Judiciary Committee, a
charter pilot lost his airplane to federal authorities in 1989 after
officers found drugs in the luggage of a passenger. The charter pilot
had no previous connection with the passenger and he was never
prosecuted for any related crimes.

The pilot, Billy Munnerlyn of Las Vegas, later declared bankruptcy and
lost his business because of the legal costs of retrieving his
airplane. The plane, when it was finally returned, had $100,000 in
damage and he was barred by federal law from suing the government for

In order to retrieve the property, under current law, the owner must
go to court, post a $5,000 bond and prove that the property was not
used in a crime -- forcing an owners into a "guilty until proven
innocent" situation, critics say.

Critics of Mr. Hyde's bill do not disagree that the rules for seizing
assets need to be changed. They worry, however, that the bill places
too heavy a burden on federal prosecutors and opens loopholes for
criminals to pass their assets on to relatives.

For example, the bill forbids federal authorities to seize assets
acquired through inheritance. That would mean the assets of a major
drug dealer would be protected from seizure after his death as long as
his relatives were not part of his drug operation.

Americans "don't want to grant extraordinary protection to the
financial henchmen of drug lords," said Rep. Asa Hutchinson, Arkansas
Republican, who pushed unsuccessfully for a milder alternative to Mr.
Hyde's bill. That proposal failed 268-155.

The Hyde bill would not change the rules for the federal government to
seize the assets that clearly belong to convicted drug dealers.

The government's right to seize property has deep roots in law, but
has been applied only to drug dealing and other crimes since 1970.
Congress steadily has increased federal authority to seize assets, and
the total value seized has jumped from $27 million in 1985 to $449
million last year.

Much of the money raised by the seized assets is returned to state and
local authorities who cooperate in federal investigations -- $163
million of the $338 million seized in 1996, for example. Courts and
civil libertarians have said this system creates an incentive for
overzealous prosecutors and police to abuse the power to seize
property and violate the normal due-process rights of property owners.

"In many jurisdictions it has become a monetary tail wagging the law
enforcement dog," said Rep. Bob Barr, Georgia Republican and a former
federal prosecutor.

The bill would eliminate the $5,000 bond for property owners to
challenge seizures and let federal judges appoint publicly funded
attorneys for poor property owners. Poor criminal defendants already
have the right to publicly paid attorneys, but asset seizures are
handled in civil court, where parties must pay their own legal costs.

The House Judiciary Committee estimates that the bill will cost the
federal government about $52 million over five years.

The Clinton administration backed Mr. Hutchinson's alternative, saying
the original bill was too strong. It has threatened a veto of the bill
passed Thursday.

"Civil forfeiture is an important tool for law enforcement," Attorney
General Janet Reno said. But she agreed that "there had been abuses,
and that they needed to be corrected."

It was not clear whether the measure would ever get to the president's
desk. No companion bill has been introduced in the Senate.
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