Few prosecutorial tools have been more open to abuse than federal civil-forfeiture laws. The horror stories of innocent people deprived of their property on the mere suspicion of wrongdoing have piled up over the years. Congress, to its credit, has finally acted.
The bill that cleared the House April 11 goes a long way toward rebalancing the scales of justice. It establishes a much higher threshold before prosecutors can seize property that may be involved in crime. Until now, a bare showing of probable cause was adequate. Under the new law - which President Clinton has agreed to sign - the government must show a substantial connection between seized belongings and a crime.
In addition, the new law will allow judges to order the release of property if its seizure causes significant hardship. In the past, even people proved innocent have had trouble regaining seized goods.
Forfeiture laws have at times been instrumental in shutting down drug traffickers, money launderers, and other crooks. They were instituted 30 years ago when concerns about narcotics and terrorism were mounting. With needed restraints built in, they still have a place.
But the examples of flagrant misuse - from the Vermont woman who lost 10 acres of land for three years because her daughter had secretly grown a marijuana patch on them to the Houston hotel owner whose building was seized because some patrons, unknown to him, had been using drugs on the premises - left no doubt the law had to be changed.
Those in Congress - such as House Judiciary Committee chairman Henry Hyde, who saw the need and persisted for years to bring about change - deserve thanks. Both Republicans, like Mr. Hyde, and Democrats were prominent in the effort.
The often cavalier application of civil forfeiture, and the resulting damage to innocent people, has for too long been an affront to American justice.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society