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Crying out for reform

Another week, another ridiculous story about civil forfeiture.

The latest excess comes from Arizona, where police seized a vehicle from an elderly couple who hadn’t even set foot in the state in 30 years. The incident, which happened in May, triggered a complex legal proceeding and yet again shined a spotlight on the pernicious practice known as civil forfeiture.

Terry Platt, 77, and Maria Platt, 74, who goes by Ria, live in Prosser, Wash. In April, they let their son, Shea, borrow their 2012 Jetta. He was pulled over on Interstate 40 near Holbrook, Ariz., for a window tint violation and a state trooper decided to search the vehicle.

Police brought in a drug-sniffing dog and found a small amount of marijuana, drug paraphernalia and more than $31,000 in cash. Shea was arrested but eventually released — prosecutors filed no criminal charges filed against him.

But that didn’t stop the cops from seizing the Platts’ vehicle under Arizona’s civil forfeiture laws. Such statutes allow law enforcement to confiscate valuables based on a mere suspicion of criminal activity. If prosecutors initiate forfeiture proceedings against the property, an innocent owner faces a cumbersome legal battle to get it back.

After the seizure, the Platts received a notice that they had 30 days to either file a claim or submit a petition to recover their property with the Navajo County Attorney’s Office. A lawyer told the Platts that fighting the forfeiture would cost $4,000, so they decided to move forward on their own. But apparently because they failed to include the words “under penalty of perjury” with their signatures, prosecutors told a judge the document was null and void.

The fiasco caught the attention of the folks at the Institute for Justice, a public-interest law firm in Arlington, Va., that has long been a leading voice advocating for forfeiture reform. The group filed a civil-rights lawsuit on behalf of the Platts arguing that the Arizona system of forfeiture is unconstitutional on a number of fronts and favors the government over property owners.

Faced with the legal battle, law enforcement officials gave the Platts their car back. The lawsuit is now winding its way through the courts.

The Institute for Justice notes that Arizona lawmakers rejected a proposal earlier this year that would have required a criminal conviction before prosecutors could initiate forfeiture proceedings. The law enforcement lobby vigorously opposed the measure.

A similar bill in Nevada met the same fate in 2015.

But the predicament the Platts endured once again highlights how such statutes can ensnare the innocent and are too often abused. Reform can’t come too soon.

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