Asset Forfeiture Becomes Fund Raising
July 6, 1999
The federal government, states and local administrations are in a tug-of-war over valuables seized from individuals in asset- forfeiture cases. As those assets allure government officials as a source of funds for whatever purpose, citizens -- guilty or innocent -- are thrown into increasing jeopardy.
Steven Kessler, a trial lawyer who used to run the asset- forfeiture unit of the Bronx attorney general's office, warns that forfeiture programs "have run amok" and adds that the focus is no longer on combating crime, but "on fund raising."
- Last month the House passed a bill requiring the federal government to prove with "clear and convincing" evidence that property was eligible for forfeiture if an owner files a legal challenge.
- Now pending in the Senate, the legislation would also require officers to prove criminality -- not simply allege it.
- The government would be required to give owners notice before seizing property.
- Some owners of seized cash would be allowed to receive interest on the amount returned.
When the police chief of San Jose, Calif., once asked the city manager why no provision was made in the city budget for police equipment, the manager noted that the police had seized $4 million the previous year and said he expected them "to do better this year."
At the federal level, in 1990 the Justice Department was falling short of the $470 million the agency expected in forfeitures that year when Attorney General Richard Thornburgh warned federal prosecutors that he expected them to use every effort to increase forfeiture income.
Source John Hendren, "Forfeiture Laws Under Fire," Washington Post, July 5, 1999.
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