A national bipartisan coalition is pushing legislators in Ohio and other Midwestern states to overhaul civil forfeiture laws that critics say are ripe for abuse by governments and can leave innocent people stripped of their property.
A pair of Ohio House Republicans, backed by 17 GOP co-sponsors, introduced legislation onTuesday that would eliminate civil asset forfeiture under state law and allow forfeiture under criminal proceedings only if a defendant is convicted.
‘It should never be enough in Ohio or anywhere else in America for an agent of the government to say, ‘You look guilty, we think you’re guilty, so we’re going to take your property,’?’ said HollyHarris, leader of the national Fix Forfeiture coalition of conservative and liberal organizations.
Forfeiture laws traditionally are used to fight large drug-trafficking organizations. Complaints of abuse have grown louder over a civil-forfeiture process that allows law enforcement to take assets such as cash, vehicles or homes without obtaining a criminal conviction if the asset is suspected of being involved in a crime.
Both Ohio prosecutors and the Fraternal Order of Police of Ohio have raised concerns about the bill.
State Rep. Rob McColley, R-Napoleon, a prime sponsor of the bill, said he is not alleging any specific abuse in Ohio. But when a law allows the state to take people’s property without a conviction, it’s an ‘affront to one of our country’s most-basic principles of justice: that people are innocent until proven guilty.’
The bill does not affect law enforcement’s ability to seize evidence, McColley said. It would bar forfeiture of property to the state without a conviction. Also, for assets to be held during a criminal proceeding, the bill would require the state to prove that the property is subject to forfeiture.
Harris said Ohio law enforcement has taken in about $80 million in assets during the past decade through the federal Equitable Sharing Program. The bill also seeks to rein in use of that federal program in Ohio, saying cash seizures could not be made under federal law unless the value exceeded$50,000.
Jason Pye, director of justice reform for the conservative group FreedomWorks, a member of theFix Forfeiture coalition, called asset forfeiture ‘an egregious example of government overreach.”
Mike Brickner, senior policy director for the ACLU of Ohio, called the bill ‘long-overdue’ relief for people who lose their property with little hope of recouping it. Forfeiture ‘runs counter to many of the most precious rights, such as due process,’ he said.
The issue has been gaining national attention. Last September,TheWashington Post found that under the federal program, police had seized $2.5 billion since2001 from people not charged with a crime.
John Murphy said he is well aware of the horror stories, but the executive director of the OhioProsecuting Attorneys Association said Ohio law protects against those kinds of problems and does not need to be changed.
The process is supervised by the courts, and the taking of property cannot be out of proportion with the nature of the offense, Murphy said.
‘We’re being tagged with the sins of others,’ he said.
Limiting civil forfeiture to cases in which a conviction occurs will cause problems, Murphysaid. He pointed to situations in which property is recovered in a search warrant, or property that is in transit where the owner might not be known, ‘but we can show pretty convincingly these are proceeds from criminal activity. We ought to be able to do something with that even though we can’t get a criminal prosecution going.’
If vehicles or large sums of cash derived from criminal activity cannot be seized, ‘I don’t know what we’re supposed to do with the stuff. Return it to the criminals?’ he said.
Michael Weinman of the FOP of Ohio said forfeiture is used in cases such as that of a drug runner from Mexico who makes his sale but is caught with $250,000 in cash. There might be no charge to file in such a situation.
‘It’s useful when you can take the profits from these drug transactions and hurt them in their bottom line,’ Weinman said.
By Jim Siegel for http://www.indeonline.com/