NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Do Asset Forfeiture Laws Pervert Justice?

March 15, 1999

David Smith, a former assistant U.S. attorney general who established the Department of Justice asset-forfeiture office in 1984, says the laws "stink." And House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.) warns that in asset forfeiture laws the "basic American presumption -- innocent until proven guilty -- has been reversed."

Asset forfeiture laws allow police agencies to seize property allegedly used in a crime through relative easy legal proceedings, without a regular criminal or civil trial. The laws allow local police agencies to share in the proceeds from property that is seized.

Among the examples Hyde cites to show the perverting effect of asset-forfeiture laws on the U.S. justice system:

  • A study found that in Boston, Mass., drug dealers who forfeit seized money to law enforcement agencies get more lenient sentences than those who have no money.
  • Florida police have confiscated cash from drivers stopped on suspicion of being drug traffickers -- even though no charges were filed.
  • Then there are the seizures of automobiles from New York City drivers who are suspected -- but not convicted -- of being drunk.

Smith says that seizing farms, boats and houses was never intended to subsidize police budgets -- and the laws weren't meant to enforce drunk-driving laws or to take the belongings of people who aren't charged with crimes.

Along with a group of defense lawyers and civil libertarians, Hyde wants to change the law in order to give citizens a better chance to reclaim their property from the government.

But the Clinton administration is reported to be adamantly opposed to those changes. One Justice Department official warns that the department "will oppose it unalterably" and recommend a Clinton veto if Congress adopts reforms.

Source: Lance Gay, "Asset Forfeiture Seen as Out of Hand," Washington Times, March 13, 1999.


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