Reform drug asset seizure

In the war on drugs, law-enforcement bodies ranging from the US Justice Department to rural sheriffs have themselves become terribly addicted to an intoxicating substance. It's not crack or heroin they're strung out on. It's the money and property these enforcement groups seize each year from thousands of Americans under the often false assertion that the wealth is connected to the drug trade.

In truth, these seizures have as much to do with padding department budgets as with keeping streets safe. And they trample fundamental freedoms enshrined in the Constitution in the process.

Rep. Henry Hyde (R) of Illinois wants to rehabilitate our law-and-order officials. Mr. Hyde, no dove on crime issues, led the fight in Congress in June for passage of the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act. The bill, now under debate in the Senate, would help prevent police and others from such acts as wrongfully seizing entire homes on little more than hearsay of drug involvement. It would stop the confiscation of cash and automobiles on suspicions of narcotics sales that are never proven and the taking of boats on discovery of a couple of marijuana joints brought on board by a guest without the owner's knowledge.

As outrageous as these seizures are, they happen regularly in America under antinarcotics statutes gone awry. Innocent people suffer great pain and loss without ever being accused of a crime.

Yet this desperately needed reform bill is in trouble in the Senate. Ranking members of the Senate Judiciary Committee - Joseph Biden (D) of Delaware and Strom Thurmond (R) of South Carolina - have vowed to kill it. They claim it would rob antidrug efforts of a tool that hobbles dealers by taking their ill-gotten gains.

But the Hyde bill permits civil forfeitures and recognizes their importance in the drug war while simply adding safeguards for the innocent.

Currently, people whose property is seized must prove their innocence at their own expense - and without necessarily being charged with any crime. The Hyde bill would simply place the burden where it belongs: on prosecutors who must provide "clear and convincing" proof that seized property or money is involved in wrongdoing whenever such seizures are challenged in court.

So reasonable is the Hyde bill that it passed the House by a vote of 375 to 47, and was co-sponsored by key ideological opponents in the Clinton impeachment battle. This unlikely coalition of supporters also includes consumer and trade organizations, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the National Rifle Association. Nonetheless, the Senate Judiciary Committee threatens to derail the bill, thanks primarily to intense pressure from the Justice Department and the International Association of Chiefs of Police. They say the reform bill would allow dealers to file frivolous claims of innocence, hobbling prosecution efforts. But, as one House Judiciary Committee spokesman explained, this is highly unlikely given that any court challenge would expose a real dealer to legal "discovery" procedures that can be overwhelmingly damaging to guilty parties with something to hide.

Yet the Senate objections persist, suggesting that it's the seized wealth itself - which departments are routinely allowed to keep - that is the real issue. Enforcement groups, frankly, are showing signs of addiction. Last year, the Justice Department seized $449 million, dramatically up from $27 million in 1985.

Steven Kessler, a trial lawyer who once headed the asset forfeiture unit of the Bronx district attorney's office, recently told the Associated Press: "Forfeiture laws have run amok. The focus is no longer on combating crime.... It's on fund-raising."

It's time to break this dependency and stop eroding the rights of innocent citizens and debasing the Constitution. The Senate Judiciary Committee should send the Hyde bill to the Senate floor where most observers agree it would pass easily. Few bills in recent memory have enjoyed so much support from so many Americans for so just a cause.

Mike Tidwell is a freelance writer based in Takoma Park, Md. He wrote 'In the Shadow of the White House: Drugs, Death and Redemption on the Streets of the Nation's Capital' (Prima, 1992).

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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