Pubdate: Tue, 16 Mar 1999 Source: Greensboro News & Record (NC) Copyright: 1999 Greensboro News & Record, Inc. Contact: Website:


In America, no one can take your property except through a legal process involving a finding of guilt. So says the Constitution of the United States in Articles IV, V and XIV.

But don't kid yourself. Today these words all too often ring hollow as the federal government, the states, counties and cities across the land avail themselves of the opportunity to sequester private property - - cash, houses, boats - under laws enacted by the Congress in the 1980s as a way to combat the power of major drug lords.

It seemed a good idea at the time to deny the chieftains of the drug trade the weaponry of their ill-gotten wealth to keep them out of the law's clutches. The Supreme Court has upheld the legality of these forfeiture laws, which also had precedent in English common law, even though the Constitution's language would have you believe that a person is innocent until proven guilty.

What is happening is that administrative actions, based on nothing more than allegations of criminality, and not court trials, are taking property from people who many times are set free and not even prosecuted.

Over the years, the forfeiture has become attractive to law enforcement ostensibly because it helps to discourage crime by showing potential lawbreakers the kind of personal penalties they face. At the same time, the police and municipal authorities have enriched their operations with the forfeited money. As a result, the police have been provided with an incentive to find excuses to seize property.

One sheriff went so far as to use such money to buy himself a camouflage shirt. Others acquire state-of-the-art crime-fighting equipment that they don't need and which no right-minded municipal authority would agree to pay for.

But even when abuses are not apparent, there are few accountability procedures in place anywhere to monitor how the forfeited money is spent. Horror stories abound across the expanse of the nation of how people falsely accused or tangentially involved in alleged crimes are deprived of their property without ever having been charged, or tried, never mind convicted of a crime. The net of forfeiture has ensnared a lot more people than the intended mobster drug kingpins.

According to a report by the Omaha, Neb., World Herald, a Californian's 200- acre scenic estate in Malibu was raided in 1992 by the police on the theory that he was growing marijuana. "Brandishing a gun to stave off what he thought were criminal intruders," the owner was shot to death. The account went on to say that investigation showed "the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department was motivated, at least in part, by a desire to seize and forfeit the ranch for the government," which was coveted by the National Park Service.

These days, forfeiture laws are being extended to apply to those accused, but not tried and convicted, of drunken driving. The rationale is that an auto in the control of a drunken driver is as much an illegal weapon as a gun used in a holdup. Never mind that the car might not be the property of the person behind the wheel.

In New York City, even if drivers are found innocent, their cars won't necessarily be returned to them. And this appears to be legal, under the reasoning that civil forfeiture is governed by different rules than apply in a criminal case.

The spreading of the practice and the piling up of evidence of abuses and injustices has coalesced civil rights advocates and politicians such as Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., who are pushing for reforms of the forfeiture laws, mainly by mandating that government has to show "clear and convincing evidence" for taking the property.

The Supreme Court, in a recent decision, limited the scope of its approval of the laws, declaring that the forfeiture must not be "grossly disproportional" to whatever law is alleged to have been violated.

As compelling as is the need to quash the drug trade and drunken driving, surrendering precious civil rights is not the way to do it. Constitutional strictures exist precisely to constrain government from wielding arbitrary powers.