A QUIET effort has begun in Congress to rein in federal and state agencies that are seizing - in the name of law enforcement - billions of dollars worth of property from American citizens.
Complaints about police actions are multiplying. Horror stories abound, particularly in drug cases. People are losing their family homes, farms, automobiles, boats, businesses, cash, and sometimes their life savings. All this, even though many were never convicted of a crime.
Law enforcement officers are acting under statutes which permit them to confiscate the property of anyone suspected of various crimes.
Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois, a conservative Republican, launched an effort this week to gather support for a bill restricting government authority to seize property. The Hyde bill would also expand the rights of innocent people to protect their possessions.
Next week, the House Committee on Government Operations has scheduled hearings that could start building support for the kind of legislation Representative Hyde is demanding.
Hyde cites numerous instances of summary justice given to apparently innocent Americans at the hands of federal and state officials.
Example: Willie Jones, the owner of a landscaping service, paid for an airline ticket with cash. Police were alerted, a fairly common practice. Mr. Jones was searched, but no drugs were detected. In his wallet was $9,600 in cash on which traces of drugs were found (Hyde says 97 percent of all currency now carries at least a trace of narcotics).
The cash was seized, though Jones was not arrested. Loss of the $9,600 nearly drove him out of business. His comment: "I didn't know it was against the law for a 42-year-old black man to have money in his pocket."
Example: Craig Klein, a Jacksonville University professor, purchased a new, $24,000 sailboat in St. Petersburg, Fla. En route to Jacksonville, the boat was stopped by US Customs agents and Martin County (Fla.) sheriff's deputies.
No drugs were found, but the interior woodwork was ripped out, the engine was damaged with a fire ax, the fuel tank was ruptured, and 30 holes were drilled in the hull, many below the waterline. Professor Klein sold his boat for scrap.
Under current law, federal officials were not responsible for the damage. In this case, Klein's congressman, Rep. Charles Bennett (D) of Florida managed to get a "private relief bill" through Congress to help him pay off the $8,900 balance of his loan.
Most innocent victims don't get such assistance. Even unwitting violations can cost a person an automobile, or even more.
"It has become a nightmare for thousands of ordinary, law-abiding citizens," says Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Ms. Strossen supports the Hyde bill, though she would like it to go further by wiping out asset-forfeiture laws altogether. Hyde disagrees, saying the laws are a valuable tool against major drug dealers. His bill centers on protecting innocent parties.
Nationwide, federal and state authorities have seized billions of dollars in property since the drug war heated up around 1984. Most is sold at auction, with a large portion of the assets going to federal and state police.
One aspect that troubles civil libertarians is that current laws set up a potential conflict-of-interest. Since forfeited assets fund a significant portion of police budgets, libertarians worry that police will go after easy, expensive targets for financial reasons.
Nancy Hollander, president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, says: "Forfeiture laws ... were touted as an effective weapon with which to gain ground in the war on drugs.... However, that goal has never been realized. Instead, law enforcement has too often focused its forfeiture activities against minor participants and innocent people.... Tens of thousands of citizens have had their property seized...."
The Hyde bill would make six changes in federal law:
* It puts the burden of proof on the government. Current law requires citizens to prove innocence after their property has been seized.
* It provides counsel for people who find themselves indigent after losing their assets.
* It returns property to owners (for example, the owner of a rental home) who have tried to prevent their property from being used as a place of drug deals.
* It eliminates the 10 percent bond requirement for anyone seeking return of his property.
* It gives owners 60 days to contest a forfeiture. The current limit is 10 days.
* It permits owners to sue the government for negligence in handling their property.