October 1, 2009
Whatever happened to "presumed innocent?"
By James Wilson

Quote of the Day: "While few would argue that criminals ought to be able to keep the proceeds of their crimes, civil forfeiture allows the government to seize and keep property without actually having to prove a crime was committed in the first place. . . . Proceeds from civil forfeiture at the state and local level usually go back to the police departments and prosecutors' offices, giving them a clear and unmistakable incentive to seize as much property as often as possible." - Radley Balko

Subject: Whatever happened to "presumed innocent?"

The government wants to seize the home of a widowed cancer survivor. She hasn't been charged with any crime, but her now-dead husband once grew marijuana on their property. He used it to ease his chronic pain. Under federal civil asset forfeiture law, that might be enough for the government to take this woman's home.

Such outrages are nothing new in the War on Drugs, but we're seeing more abuses as criminal law becomes increasingly federalized. For instance, federal agents are now exploiting the 2006 Unlawful Internet Gambling Enforcement Act to seize bank accounts and computers.

The leader of a new Asset Forfeiture and Money Laundering task force admits that unlike criminal cases where the suspect is presumed innocent until proved guilty, in civil asset forfeiture cases . . .

* if you lose property to an asset forfeiture seizure you must prove your innocence in order to get it back
* you have no 5th amendment protections -- even your silence can be used against you

Civil asset forfeiture is also alive and well at the local level, where police steal money from citizens in order to pay for new equipment. 

Under Illinois law, the state can withhold cash, cars, or other property for six months without even a preliminary hearing! Under the law, three innocent people had to wait over a year to get their cars back. They, along with three innocent people who had money stolen from them, have argued the Constitutionality of the Illinois law.

The "good" news is that this law will be argued in the Supreme Court this month in Alvarez v. Smith.

The bad news is that the most positive outcome is likely to be only a reduction of the time you must wait before a preliminary hearing. The Court isn't expected to strike down the law, even though civil asset forfeiture proceedings clearly violate the 14th Amendment provision that no state "can deprive any person of . . . property, without due process of law."

Congress can do what the Court will not. Tell your representatives to abolish Civil Asset Forfeiture using our Educate the Powerful System.

Use your personal comments to mention the example of the widow who may lose her home because her now dead husband grew marijuana that he used to ease his pain from cancer.

You can send your message here.

And don't forget to share this message with your friends:

Thank you for being a DC Downsizer.

James Wilson
Assistant Communications Director

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