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An impending victory for due process and property rights

Civil asset forfeiture is a tool that law enforcement uses to seize property alleged to have been involved in a crime. That could be a few hundred dollars or a car or even someone’s home. (iStock Photo)

December 17, 2016

In the ongoing debate over how to repair America’s broken criminal justice system, civil asset forfeiture laws are among the most obvious candidates for reform that conservatives can support.

Civil asset forfeiture is a tool that law enforcement uses to seize property alleged to have been involved in a crime. That could be a few hundred dollars or a car or even someone’s home.

Asset forfeiture laws are intended to fight organized crime, drug king pins and terrorists, and they can work effectively for that purpose. But too often these laws ensnare ordinary, innocent people, often leaving them with no recourse.

The burden is typically on the accused to prove that his property was not involved in a crime, the cost of which can be prohibitive. In the meantime, the accused person’s property typically stays with the police. The success rate for winning back property tends to be low. Tales are legion of innocent people having their money or property taken and never getting it back.

A big part of the problem is that law enforcement often seizes property only on suspicion of criminal activity, rather than actual evidence of it. As we have said in the past, this runs counter to the basic constitutional principle of presumption of innocence.

This practice creates incentives for cops to be on the hunt for property to take from innocent people. In many cases, law enforcement officials learn to count on the windfalls seized assets can create. Police departments have been known to spend seized money on expensive toys.

How common is this practice? Billions are seized every year under the practice. And one study found that 40 percent of police departments say funds they seize are a necessary source of income.

In Ohio, both houses of the legislature have passed a bill requiring law enforcement to file criminal charges against people before they can keep their cash or property. Suspicion of wrongdoing is no longer enough.

The bill would further limit police departments from taking cases to the federal level and working with the Justice Department to evade state laws on forfeitures, a common practice.

The legislature still must work out the minimum amount of money that law enforcement can seize through criminal forfeiture. Once it does, the legislation will go to Gov. John Kasich’s desk, where we hope he will sign it.

Such reforms are not only a matter of property rights and due process. They are also a matter of social cohesion. Civil asset forfeiture the way it is often practiced erodes trust between law enforcement and the public at a time when such trust is in short supply.

In Ohio, both conservative and liberal groups lobbied to have the bill passed, and it passed unanimously, which shows the bipartisan nature of this reform. Seventeen other states have passed similar reforms, and we encourage more to join them.