Big business for the federal government

Back in 2000, after numerous documented abuses, Congress reformed the nation’s asset forfeiture laws in an effort to better protect the innocent. A decade later, it appears time to revisit the issue.

For those unfamiliar with civil forfeiture, it is a powerful law enforcement tool that allows the government to seize an individual’s assets — cash, property, virtually anything — even if the owner of the items confiscated is never convicted or even charged with a crime.

Under a bizarre legal doctrine that dates back to colonial times, the asset seized, not its owner, is technically the guilty party. And unlike in criminal cases, where a defendant is considered innocent until the state proves otherwise, the burden of proof in a civil forfeiture proceeding is on the property owner to show that the items seized are not connected to criminal activity.

In other words, the property is guilty until proved innocent, which makes it extremely difficult for an individual to prevail in such cases.

But while the 2000 reforms represented a step forward in protecting the rights of individuals, The Wall Street Journal reported this week that the number of asset seizures has skyrocketed over the past 15 years thanks to the “broader growth in recent decades of the federal justice system.”

In other words, as Congress has created hundreds and thousands of new federal laws, criminalizing behavior previously considered innocuous or harmless, it also has doubled to 400 the number of statutes that allow forfeitures.

And federal law enforcement officials haven’t been shy about taking advantage of it. In the past five years, according to the Justice Department, asset seizures have doubled to $2.5 billion. The major targets? Homes, boats, cars and cash.

For instance, the Journal highlighted the case of Raul Stio, a New Jersey businessman from whom the IRS seized $157,000 last year. The agency suspected him of laundering money, saying he structured deposits to avoid federal bank transaction reporting rules. Mr. Stio’s attorney argued that the deposit amounts — all under $10,000 — simply reflected what his businesses had produced.

Mr. Stio has not been charged with any crime, yet it is unlikely he will ever see his money again.

“We are paying assistant U.S. attorneys to carry out the theft of property from often the most defenseless citizens,” David Smith, a former Justice forfeiture official and now an attorney who defends forfeiture clients, told the Journal.

Indeed, defenders of asset forfeiture argue it’s a vital tool to stop criminals from benefiting from their ill-gotten gains. Perhaps, but allowing law enforcement officials to conduct warrantless searches at their leisure would also make it easier for them. Just because the tactic is effective doesn’t make it right.

Besides, if the authorities want to ensure a bad guy makes his victims whole, that can be accomplished in criminal court, where the innocent have a fighting chance.

The concept of civil forfeiture — that the government can permanently seize the property of a person who has never been charged with any crime — seems more at home in a tyrannical dictatorship than in a state founded on freedom, liberty and justice. If forfeiture cases have almost doubled in the past decade, it’s time for Congress to again scrutinize this tactic.

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