Civil Asset Forfeiture Needs To Be Reined In

Few people have any argument with the government seizing property owned by a drug trafficker. Often, houses, cars, boats, etc. — as well as the pusher’s cash — were obtained by breaking the law.

But what about someone merely accused of a crime? We Americans are innocent until proven guilty, right?

Only in a way. The government cannot send us to prison without convicting us of crimes. Sometimes, however, it can take and keep our property. And in some parts of the U.S., we may have to prove we are innocent to get it back.

Welcome to the world of civil asset forfeiture. New York is tougher on this than some states, but abuses have still been documented in the press.

And the problem is not just seizing defendants’ assets before a conviction; it’s also that authorities sometimes mishandle those now-public assets. The Franklin County district’s attorney’s office recently came under well-deserved criticism from a federal audit for mishandling more than $450,000 in asset forfeiture funding. It was being used as a slush fund, largely without bookkeeping or accountability. That’s unacceptable.

Under both state and federal laws, authorities can seize property they believe was used in criminal activities. Not infrequently, they use the proceeds to buy law enforcement equipment.

Prosecutors can file motions to take property even if no one has been convicted of a crime. Once that happens, it is up to the owners to argue against the motion in court. In other words, the person whose possessions have been taken must go to court, usually by hiring an attorney, to prove he or she has not used the property in a crime.

That simply isn’t how things are supposed to happen in the United States of America.

Legislators should still make it possible for authorities to take assets used by those convicted of crimes and which have been used for illegal activities. Some safeguards should be provided, however, for members of criminals’ families who may have been unaware their loved ones were breaking the law. And under no circumstances should police and prosecutors be permitted to take possessions unless proof has been provided in court that crimes have occurred — and that the owners of the property in question are guilty.

It should not be difficult for lawmakers to make such changes. They should see to it right away.