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How Asset Forfeiture Allows Cops to Steal from Citizens


How Asset Forfeiture Allows Cops to Steal from Citizens
A Virginia lawmaker takes on policing for profit.
A. Barton Hinkle | October 22, 2014

In September Rep. Scott Garrett (R-NJ), Chairman of the Congressional Constitution Caucus, and Rep. Tony Cárdenas (D-CA), Co-Chairman of the bipartisan Crime Prevention and Youth Development Caucus, today introduced H.R. 5502, the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration (FAIR) Act, to protect Americans from having their property seized without the due process of law.  The FAIR Act makes a number of changes to civil asset forfeiture laws to restore the constitutional protections guaranteed by the Fifth Amendment.

The FAIR Act would ensure that Americans are innocent until proven guilty by requiring the government to meet a higher legal standard before seizing an individual’s property.  This legislation would raise the standard to seize assets from a preponderance of evidence to a higher standard of clear and convincing evidence.  In addition, the FAIR Act would eliminate the practice of equitable sharing and eliminate all profit incentives by requiring that all funds seized by the federal government go into the general treasury fund.

It probably seemed like a bright idea at the time: Let the police seize the ill-gotten gains of alleged drug dealers and other suspected criminals and sell it, using the proceeds to buy much-needed crime-fighting gear.

Unfortunately, the process—civil asset forfeiture—did not require convicting anybody of a crime. In fact, it didn’t even require charging anybody with a crime. Not surprisingly, this led to rampant abuse, which has been abundantly documented for many years. Various reform efforts, including a 2000 federal law, have been unable to stop what’s become known as policing for profit.

But Virginia lawmaker Mark Cole is going to give it another shot. That’s as good a sign as any that civil asset forfeiture has jumped the shark.

You can’t get much more conservative than Cole, a Republican who represents Spotsylvania in the General Assembly, without falling off the edge of the political spectrum. Cole supports “traditional family values” — so much so that he voted against appointing a Richmond prosecutor and former Navy pilot to a judgeship because he was gay. Cole has sponsored legislation to deny government benefits to illegal immigrants. And to strip state funding for abortions even in cases where the fetus has “gross and totally incapacitating physical deformity or mental deficiency.” And to rewrite a state prohibition against guns in schools so private schools could set their own rules. Four years ago, he sponsored a bill to protect people from having microchips implanted in their bodies, in part because such microchips might be used as the “mark of the beast” described in Revelations.

On his website, Cole boasts of supporting law enforcement. “Public safety and emergency services are Mark Cole’s top priorities,” reads a quote from Stafford County Sheriff Charlie Jett. “He helped ensure that funding was available for pay raises for deputies and state troopers. He has been a strong voice for us in Richmond.”

But policing for profit has gone too far, even for Cole. In anticipation of the 2015 legislative session, he already has filed a bill (HB 1287) that would forbid asset forfeiture without a conviction—and even then only after all appeals have been exhausted.