County prosecutors have taken bipartisan fire for opposing a bill that would ban law enforcement from seizing private property without a criminal conviction.
The debate this week highlighted the complexity of an issue that some describe as un-American.
“I’ve struggled this entire time to wrap my head around the fact that there is a process by which we can take someone’s property based on the suspicion of a crime, but without ever charging them with a crime,” said Rep. Robert McColley, R-Napoleon.
But prosecutors who testified before the House Judiciary Committee say McColley’s House Bill 347 would eliminate a vital tool in getting cash and other valuable possessions away from criminals, including drug dealers, human traffickers and terrorists.
The bill seeks to do away with civil asset forfeiture — the process by which law enforcement can go to court to seize vehicles, cash, residences and other possessions that are found to be part of criminal activity. The bill would make it part of the criminal process, requiring that a person is convicted and increasing the burden of proof on law enforcement.
John Murphy, executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, said it’s a bill that drug dealers would back. In cases where a criminal charge is not sought, perhaps because the suspect can’t be located or already is the subject of a federal investigation, “under this proposal the property would be returned to — the criminals?”
But lawmakers grilled prosecutors from a few Ohio counties, focusing on a 2013 case out of Wood County involving a man stopped driving with more than $350,000 in cash and blank money orders found in four trash bags.
The driver was charged with three felonies, but those charges were dropped and, instead, prosecutors went ahead with a civil forfeiture, seizing money they said was tied to a Pennsylvania corporation that was a front for a drug and money-laundering operation.
Rep. Jeff Rezabek, R-Clayton, said it appeared that prosecutors were “doing an end-around” to get hold of the money.
“You want to give them criminal punishment in the civil system because it’s easier,” Rezabek said to Wood County Prosecutor Paul Dobson. “Punish the gentleman for what he did, if you can prove it. Do you see where something like this could raise concerns, where you have criminal charges, but you dropped them so you could go an easier way?”
Others also questioned the process, including Rep. Niraj Antani, R-Miamisburg, who told Dobson: “That’s your job to make that conviction. I do not believe this bill completely abolishes this process. It makes it a criminal process instead of a civil process.”
Dobson said he is willing to discuss potential reforms to Ohio’s asset-forfeiture law, although prosecutors said many of the complaints nationally relate to federal property seizures. “But to just completely eradicate the procedure is not a reasonable response.”
He said it sounded as if bill supporters want law enforcement to just let someone go if they find huge sums of cash hidden in a vehicle that appears to be linked to criminal activity.
Thomas Matuszak, assistant Wood County prosecutor, said there were jurisdictional issues involved with a criminal case against the driver stopped in 2013. He also stressed that, whether it’s drug traffickers or terrorists, taking an organization’s cash hurts more than a conviction or seizing drugs.
“You can second-guess my judgment, but that’s my experience,” he told lawmakers.
Union County Prosecutor David Phillips, who also opposes the bill, noted that a warehouse in his county used by a drug cartel had two vehicles whose owner likely will never be found. In another case, 200 computers and $730,000 located in dozens of bank accounts were seized from illegal Internet cafes. All parties agreed to forfeit the money and property.
“Repeal of the civil forfeiture process is unnecessary,” he said.
Published originally on http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/local/2015/11/11/civil-forfeiture-bill.html