In 1993 an extensive series in this newspaper detailed the serious abuse of civil forfeiture - the seizure by authorities of assets allegedly used in the illegal drug trade, even when no criminal charges have been filed.
In fact, no criminal charges are filed in 80 percent of civil forfeiture cases. The government simply seizes property and an innocent victim must then prove a negative - that the money or other assets are untainted. Time and again citizens' due-process rights are violated. Often seized property is kept even when a defendant is acquitted of a crime.
To make matters worse, the seized assets are often awarded directly to the law-enforcement agency involved, creating a serious conflict of interest for bureaucrats with tight budgets.
Take, for example, the family-owned Congress Pizzeria in Chicago. A few years ago, the Chicago Police Department confiscated $500,000 in small bills on the pretext it was "drug money." (What else could possibly explain so many small bills in a corner pizzeria?) Federal prosecutors justified the seizure on the grounds that the owner's son was "extremely distraught" over it, and "offered no explanation for the cash horde." It took four years and piles of legal bills for the owner to get his money back.
Since 1993, House Judiciary Chairman Henry Hyde (then a minority member) has pushed legislation to temper the worst abuses. Friday he and a bipartisan coalition of supporters succeeded when the House overwhelmingly passed a reform bill. Among other things, it would:
*Require the federal government to prove by "clear and convincing evidence" that assets are subject to forfeiture if the owner challenges confiscation.
*Increase the time a property owner has to challenge a forfeiture.
*Allow judges to return property pending a final ruling on forfeiture in hardship cases and pay interest to an owner who wins his money back.
*Provide government-paid lawyers to poor defendants.
*Eliminate the 10 percent bond required from owners challenging a seizure.
The administration, egged on by the Justice Department, opposed the measure, but the House rightly rejected its weak substitute. Now the matter goes on to the Senate, which should approve the bill. Then President Clinton should sign it and stop the abuse.