When the cops become robbers


We expect law enforcement agencies to do their best to protect public safety and private property. But what do you do when it is the police doing the stealing?

In what has become an all-too-familiar theme, police are increasingly seizing people’s cash, cars, homes, businesses and other property using dubious charges of criminal activity.

The U.S. Department of Justice’s Asset Forfeiture Fund has grown from about $94 million in 1986 to more than $2 billion as of September 2013, The Economist reports.

Under civil asset forfeiture rules, police are able to seize property without charging, much less convicting, someone of committing a crime. A 1995 Cato Institute study by Republican former congressman Henry Hyde found that in about 80 percent of federal civil asset forfeiture cases, the property owner was not even charged with a crime.

In many cases, the property owner may only be tangentially related to the commission of a minor crime, such as the elderly West Philadelphia couple whose home was seized because their son, unbeknownst to them, allegedly sold $20 worth of marijuana to an informant three times from the family’s front porch.

Getting seized property returned is difficult, if not impossible, as the presumption of innocence is turned on its head and property owners must endure a costly and lengthy process of trying to prove their innocence before getting their property back. Sometimes people are bullied by police into agreeing not to challenge the property seizure in exchange for charges not being filed.

To make matters worse, while many states, including California, have passed laws to curb civil forfeiture abuses, law enforcement agencies can easily get around these restrictions by partnering with federal agencies through a process called “equitable sharing.” Local law enforcement agencies need only contact the federal agency, which will process the forfeiture under the federal government’s lax standard of evidence. The federal agency will then take a cut of the proceeds from property seized and return up to 80 percent of proceeds to the local agency.

To address such abuses, Sen. Rand Paul, R-Ky., late last month introduced S. 2644, the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration (FAIR) Act of 2014. The legislation would: 1) establish that police would need “clear and convincing evidence” of a crime, rather than the existing and looser “preponderance of the evidence” standard, in order to seize property, 2) force state and local agencies to abide by their state laws restricting civil forfeiture; and 3) redirect forfeiture assets from the federal Asset Forfeiture Fund to the U.S. Treasury’s General Fund.

This sort of “policing for profit” is blatantly unconstitutional and needs to be halted now. We may not have sympathy for the major drug dealer who has his car seized by the cops, but when innocent people are having their property taken without cause or due process of law, and law enforcement agencies have a financial incentive to engage in such abuses, something is obviously very wrong. Sen. Paul’s bill offers a solid solution to the problem.

— From the Orange County Register

 

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