A congressman wants to change the legal loophole that allows cops to go “treasure hunting” for Americans’ property.
California Republican Rep. [crscore]Darrell Issa[/crscore] published an editorial in the Los Angeles Times Wednesday calling for civil asset forfeiture reform.
Civil asset forfeiture is a practice in which police can seize property and keep it even if they don’t convict or charge the owner with a crime. Then, the owner must go through the difficult, and often unsuccessful, process to get their property – whether it’s a vehicle, cash or home – back from the police. The burden of proof falls on the owner to prove their property is innocent, a difficult legal task. Issa cited a crucial statistic from the Institute for Justice, a pro-civil forfeiture reform group, which showed in 2014 law enforcement took $5 billion from Americans.
Issa, who serves on the House Committee on the Judiciary, said Congress needs to reform federal “equitable sharing” laws, which allow local police to circumvent tough state laws and use the less strict federal law to take and keep property, as long as they give feds a percentage of the proceeds. Laws vary at the state level, and some states have had success passing meaningful reforms, but equitable sharing still allows cops to get around state law.
The editorial comes after the case of Eh Wah showed how bad abuses can be. During a traffic stop, police in Oklahoma seized $53,000 from Wah, who was part of a Christian band that had raised the money for an orphanage and Christian college. A K9 alerted on the vehicle, but police didn’t find drugs, guns or any paraphernalia. They took the cash anyway, saying it was drug proceeds, but they let Wah go free after interrogating him. They finally charged him with a crime five weeks later, but all charges were dropped after the case went public. Now the case has become a rallying point for reformers.
“Stories such as this one happen all the time,” Issa wrote.
Issa finished his piece with a call for reform.
Police of course need the ability to seize and protect property as evidence for trial. But the current system — which allows police to go treasure hunting, beefing up their budgets on the backs of innocent Americans — stands in stark contrast to constitutional principles of due process and property rights.
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