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Stanek: Illinois should restore basic legal safeguard

Published: Wednesday, July 30, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT

Imagine police seize your money, your car, even your house. Imagine this happens without you being convicted of or charged with a crime. Imagine being told you must sue the government to get back your property and prove you did nothing wrong, while the government must prove nothing to keep the property. Nothing.

This happens thousands of times a year across the country. It soon will happen less often in Minnesota, which has taken a small but important step toward ending one of the most abusive law enforcement practices in the nation. It’s a step the federal government, Illinois and other state governments should take to protect citizens and restore a fundamental principle of life in the U.S.: That we are presumed innocent until proven guilty.

Federal, state and local governments have stolen billions of dollars of property from people who never have been convicted of a crime or charged with one. They’ve done it under a practice called “civil forfeiture.” It’s an outgrowth of the nation’s “war on drugs,” which has been raging and failing since President Richard Nixon launched it more than 40 years ago.

Civil forfeiture defenders say it’s another way to get at criminals – usually drug users or sellers – while helping to fund law enforcement. Under civil forfeiture, police and prosecutors may seize property, sell it and use the proceeds to fund their budgets. To get back their property, forfeiture victims must spend thousands of dollars in legal fees to sue. In many instances, the legal costs would exceed the value of the property.

Politicians eager to look tough on crime structured civil forfeiture so that police and prosecutors may take property on the mere suspicion that it could be linked to a drug crime or certain other nefarious activities. Police and prosecutors don’t have to prove anything. Their “suspicions” often are so flimsy no arrest or criminal charge is made. Their complaint is actually against the property and not the property’s owner.

In its “Policing for Profit” report on civil forfeiture abuses, the Arlington, Virginia-based Institute for Justice noted that in Illinois, “the state need only show probable cause to forfeit your property. If you believe your property has been wrongly seized, you bear the burden of proving your innocence. Moreover, law enforcement keeps 90 percent of the proceeds for any sales of seized property, which creates a strong incentive for law enforcement to police for profit. Despite these broad laws, there is no requirement in Illinois that law enforcement account for forfeited currency and property, so we know little about its use under state law.”

The final straw for Minnesota legislators came after the Minneapolis Star-Tribune newspaper reported on the brutality of the state’s Metro Gang Strike Force and the apparent thefts of cash and other forfeited property, including at least 13 cars, by strike force members. A state court later ordered $840,000 in seized property returned to forfeiture victims, and the strike force was disbanded.

Effective Saturday, people in Minnesota will need to be convicted of a drug crime before their property can be seized through forfeiture. Forfeiture for other reasons is still possible but this is a good start.

Civil forfeiture is a system in which government effectively declares we are presumed guilty until proven innocent.

In other words, it is a system of police and prosecutor tyranny.

North Carolina is the only state with no civil forfeiture. Let us hope Illinois, Minnesota and the rest of the states and the federal government get to where North Carolina is and ban all civil forfeitures.

• Steve Stanek is a McHenry resident and a research fellow at The Heartland Institute in Chicago. Email him at sstanek@heartland.org.

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