Bill to Curb Forfeitures Clears Hill 

Bill to Curb Forfeitures Clears Hill 
Posted by FoM on April 11, 2000 at 21:59:56 PT
By Juliet Eilperin, Washington Post Staff Writer
Source: Washington Post
Legislation making it harder for the federal government to seize property from suspected criminals cleared Congress yesterday, as lawmakers moved to curb a popular law enforcement tool that they say too often violates the rights of innocent people.
The measure, adopted on a voice vote in the House, would raise the standard the government must meet when it tries to take property from private citizens suspected of drug dealing or other crimes. The Senate has already approved identical legislation, and the White House has signaled that President Clinton will sign the bill.Many lawmakers agreed that civil forfeiture has proved to be a valuable tool in helping crack down on drug traffickers who use ill-gotten gains to buy boats, houses and even whole businesses. In 1998, for instance, the Justice Department seized $449 million of assets linked to alleged criminal activity.But an odd coalition of civil libertarians, business executives and conservatives successfully argued that too many innocent people have been victimized in the zeal to crack down on illegal drug dealing. They cited a trail of horror stories, such as the Houston hotel that was confiscated by federal agents after the local U.S. attorney accused the owners of tacitly approving drug activity.Rep. Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee and one of the architects of the bill, hailed yesterday's House vote and recalled that when he first learned about the nation's civil forfeiture practices, he considered them "more appropriate for the Soviet Union than the United States.""Who would have believed that under our current law the government could confiscate a person's private property on a mere showing of probable cause?" said Rep. John Conyers Jr. (Mich.), the top Judiciary Democrat, who has jousted with Hyde on many other issues.Under current law, federal agents can take suspects' assets without an arrest and often keep them even after a suspect is acquitted or cleared of any charges; the burden of proof is on the property owner to show why he or she should regain the seized assets.Law enforcement officials have voiced concern about the congressional campaign to curb those powers, fearing it could undermine their effort to go after drug dealers. But with momentum building in Congress to reform the system, Attorney General Janet Reno sat down recently to negotiate a compromise with a bipartisan group of lawmakers.Hyde had originally proposed requiring prosecutors to provide "clear and convincing evidence" that the property they seize is linked to criminal activity. He also proposed providing indigent defendants with free legal counsel.Under the compromise with Reno, prosecutors would have to show that a "preponderance of the evidence" shows that seized assets are linked to criminal activity. Defendants would receive free representation in seizure cases only if they already have a government lawyer in a related criminal case or had real property  such as a business or house  seized by the government.The final measure provides other protections to suspects, such as allowing a court to release assets during a case if a forfeiture were causing a property owner substantial hardship. The government must pay property owners' legal fees if they successfully challenge the seizure of their assets.The list of civil forfeiture horror stories is lengthy. It took Haleyville, Ala., doctor Richard Lowe nearly six years and numerous appeals to get back his life savings of more than $2.5 million after federal agents seized his account. Lowe, whose family lost money during the Depression, kept nearly $317,000 in shoe boxes in his house before depositing it in a Roanoke bank. The bank's president placed the cash in a vault, exchanging it periodically for cashier's checks, which he deposited in Lowe's account.After other bank officials reported this pattern to the FBI, federal agents confiscated the doctor's entire account on suspicions that he was laundering illegal drug money. Though the bank president told the FBI Lowe knew nothing about his activities and the government dropped its case against Lowe a week before his trial, it did not relinquish the money until the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered it to do so in 1996. During the legal fight, Lowe was hospitalized for stress and high blood pressure.Lowe's lawyer, E.E. "Bo" Edwards, said the broad discretion that forfeiture law provides to prosecutors "encourages them to become greedy, to become overreaching, and innocent people are injured. That's exactly what happened here."Not a single lawmaker spoke out against the bill yesterday, and members from both sides praised Hyde for his seven-year crusade to overhaul the law. The once-embattled chairman emphasized that the bitter fight in 1998 over impeachment had not undermined his panel's lawmaking ability, and he read a lengthy thank-you list that sounded more like an Oscar acceptance speech than typical floor remarks."The Judiciary Committee in this House of Representatives can work together in a bipartisan fashion to turn out good legislation," Hyde said.By Juliet EilperinWashington Post Staff WriterWednesday, April 12, 2000 ; A01 2000 The Washington Post Company Related Articles & Web Site:Forfeiture Endangers Americans Rights Congress Revises Rules on Property Seizures Passes Final Civil Asset Forfeiture Bill Law May Be Narrowed Liberty Amend Civil Forfeiture and Fairness 
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