Protecting the Innocent
Washington, DC (June 24, 1999) -- Overzealous federal law enforcement officials who unjustly seize property and assets of innocent citizens will be reined in as a result of reform legislation passed by the House today.
The bi-partisan Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act “preserves the basic American principle that individuals are innocent until proven guilty and that citizens should not lose their property without due process of law,” said Larry Pozner, President of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (NACDL).
“Too often, prosecutors have used the war against crime as a pretext to railroad the due process rights of Americans. Amazingly, in some 80 percent of cases where assets were seized, no criminal charges were ever filed,” he noted. “Police and prosecutors have confiscated bank accounts and other assets of innocent victims, including small businesses and corporations. And in a gross conflict of interest, these wrongfully-seized assets go directly into the coffers of the agency doing the seizing. This sends a mistaken message to law enforcement officials that they should use their crime-fighting arsenal to generate revenue for their agencies at the expense of law-abiding citizens.”
The new reform measure is broadly supported by such diverse groups as the National Rifle Association, the American Civil Liberties Union, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Realtors, the American Bankers Association, and others. It also addresses unfair aspects of the law which make it difficult--if not impossible--for those whose assets are seized to recover them.
Currently, property owners have a limited window of only ten days to file a costly claim and sue the government. They then must prove a negative; that the assets are not involved in any illegal activity.
House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde and other supporters of the bill soundly rejected a watered-down substitute measure, drafted and supported by the Departments of Justice and Treasury, which was cloaked in the language of reform. In fact, the failed substitute, an amendment backed by Rep. Asa Hutchinson (R-AR) and Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY) in fundamental respects, would have expanded the government’s already perverse forfeiture powers.
For example, it would have gutted provisions that protect innocent sellers of goods and services who unknowingly engage in transactions with someone using money subject to forfeiture. And it would have unduly limited the rights of the poor and others with limited means to obtain counsel in cases where their assets were unjustly seized. The provision would have established a threshold value of the property seized prior to a court allowing appointed counsel.
“Chairman Hyde and other supporters of this critical legislation were wise to turn back the efforts of the Department of Justice and the Department of Treasury to undermine reform efforts,” Pozner said. “Had those efforts succeeded, the rights of the poor and low-income Americans would have been trampled on.”
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Countless Americans have been victims of the government’s abuse of civil asset forfeiture laws. Consider these examples:
- In Houston, Texas
The U.S. Attorney’s Office wrongfully seized a red Carpet Motel, claiming that the motel owners had somehow “tacitly approved of alleged drug activity on the premises by motel guests. The “evidence”? The motel declined to acquiesce to the prosecutor’s request that it increase its room rates to deter questionable types. The government kept the seized property for months. The owners suffered a loss of their business reputation and incurred thousands of dollars in legal fees.
- In Chicago, Illinois
The Chicago Police Department improperly seized money from the make-shift safe of a family-owned pizzeria, Congress Pizzeria. Some $500,000 in mostly small bills--such as those as might be expected from transactions in a small restaurant--was taken on the pretext that it was “drug money.” This conclusion was reached because, according to the federal prosecutors, the owner’s son was “extremely distraught” when he was told that the money was being seized from his family’s restaurant and, furthermore, he had “offered no explanation for the cash horde.” It took four years and costly litigation for the pizzeria owner to recover his money.
- In Hayleyville, Alabama
A publicity-shy country doctor, Richard Lowe M.D., had his life savings of almost $3 million wrongfully seized by the overzealous U.S. Attorney’s office in Birmingham. The doctor, like many of his depression-era generation, stashed large amounts of cash at home. After deciding to establish a charity bank account for a local school, the doctor relied on the local bank president, a friend, to help the doctor maintain his anonymity. The doctor turned over shoe boxes of cash to the bank president, who put them in the bank vault. Over the next few weeks, to guard the doctor’s privacy, the bank president used the cash to buy cashier’s checks from different neighboring banks, and then credited the doctor’s charity account. No violation of law was committed by the doctor or the bank president. Yet the doctor was denied his life savings for three years in a civil forfeiture and faced a wrongful indictment and threat of a criminal trial. The experience caused him to be hospitalized for stress and high blood pressure.
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“Clearly reform of the civil asset forfeiture law is long overdue,” said Pozner. “With these new safeguards in place, Congress will have helped to put an end to reckless behavior by federal authorities that can have a devastating financial and emotional impact on innocent people.”
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