NEW HAVEN, CONN. — FORFEITURE laws in the United States are more than 200 years old, but the government has never before enforced them ``with this kind of vigor,'' says Robert Casale, a defense attorney in Connecticut.
The ``vigor'' Mr. Casale complains about now has begun to worry Congress.
Two legislators, Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois and Rep. John Conyers (D) of Michigan, are currently the lead players in a growing effort on Capitol Hill to rein in police forfeiture powers.
Representative Hyde already has introduced a bill to put the burden of proof on the government. Right now the main burden falls on the property owner. Representative Conyers' bill - likely to be even more restrictive - should be introduced within the next month or two.
Change can't come too quickly for attorney Casale, who sometimes works pro bono for strapped homeowners who have lost their property. He finds current federal policy unjustifiable.
``There have always been Customs laws that allow Customs officers to seize contraband coming into the country, like somebody from Panama with a chicken under each arm,'' he explains. ``Nobody complains about that.
``When they start taking people's houses, when they start seizing bank accounts and things that people can trace to lawful money ... they've gone overboard.''
Police and government attorneys are primarily interested in property with lots of equity, says Casale, who has handled a large number of forfeiture cases. In some jurisdictions, police won't bother with cars with less than $10,000 in equity, or houses with under $50,000 in net worth.
The attorney says: ``I'll give you the key to understanding all complicated forfeiture cases. If the thing isn't worth anything, the government doesn't want it.
``So when you see an old, broken-down truck, I don't care if it had 600 pounds of marijuana in it and a dead body, they're giving it back, because they don't want it.''
HE continues: ``In all of these forfeitures, they've seldom, if ever, gone after [worthless] crack houses.... They want houses with very low, or no, mortgages.''
To clean up what he sees as abuses, Hyde would clarify the law by adding protection for innocent owners who did not give consent for the illegal use of their property. Hyde would also give owners 60 days to challenge a forfeiture, much more than the current 10 days. And he would permit property owners to sue for negligence when officers wreck property while searching for drugs.
Currently a property owner who wants to contest a forfeiture must post a bond equal to 10 percent of the property's value. This can be impossible when police have grabbed everything someone owns. Hyde would abolish the bond requirement.
Hyde would also grant the right to counsel for people stripped of all their assets.
``Unfortunately, our civil asset-seizure laws are being used in terribly unjust ways,'' Hyde says. ``This is wrong, and it must be changed.''