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ACLU * ACLU * ACLU * ACLU * ACLU * ACLU * ACLU * ACLU * ACLU NEWS RELEASE * NEWS RELEASE * NEWS RELEASE * NEWS RELEASE Statement of ACLU President Nadine Strossen In Support of Congressional Asset Forfeiture Reform Act For IMMEDIATE RELEASE June 15, 1993 WASHINGTON -- I'm pleased to be here today on behalf of the American Civil Liberties Union to support Representative Henry Hyde's Civil Asset Forfeiture Act of 1993. The ACLU believes that all civil forfeiture schemes inherently violate fundamental constitutional rights, including the right not to be deprived of property without due process of law and the right to be free from punishment that is disproportionate to the offense. Our ultimate goal, therefore, is the abandonment of all civil forfeitures. While it certainly does not go that far, Congressman Hyde's bill does take an important first step in the right direction. This bill would reform forfeiture proceedings to provide property owners with some significant procedural protections. It would also make it more difficult for government to confiscate the property of innocent owners -- people who were not aware of, or did not consent to, any illicit activity in connection with their property. These reforms are critically needed and long overdue because innocent property owners, or those who have committed only minor infractions, are now subject to draconian punishments and property deprivations. Civil forfeiture has been used increasingly since 1984, when Congress passed a law authorizing federal officials to seize any property used to facilitate the drug trade, or that was purchased with drug money. Since then civil forfeiture has been used to seize all kinds of personal and real property, from family homes to lawn equipment. It has become a nightmare for thousands of ordinary, law-abiding citizens. Many innocent people lose their property under the current civil forfeiture law because of procedural obstacles that make it difficult to contest forfeitures. In particular, forfeiture laws include extremely short periods for filing a claim for seized property -- 20 days or less. Moreover, people contesting forfeitures must post a penal cost bond for a substantial amount of money. The government has strictly enforced these requirements, and has permanently deprived owners of their property for any slight non-compliance with them. Congressman Hyde's bill eliminates these unfair procedural hurdles: it extends the deadline for contesting a seizure to 60 days and it drops the cost bond requirement. Another important reform in Congressman Hyde's bill is its requirement that government prove that property it has seized was subject to forfeiture by clear and convincing evidence. Under current law, in contrast, the government may seize property after showing only "probable cause" that the property was connected to illicit activity. This standard, in reality, means only slightly more than a hunch and far less than what's necessary in a court of law. Asset seizures can currently be justified through hearsay or other "evidence" that is deemed too unreliable even to be admissible in a judicial proceeding. Worse yet, once the government has seized property on this slim probable cause showing, it will acquire permanent title to the property unless owners prove both that they had no knowledge of the illicit activity and that they did not consent to it. But it is often impossible to satisfy this heavy burden of proving what is essentially a negative. Moreover, requiring an innocent property owner to prove his or her innocence turns fundamental due process principles on their head. As any schoolchild knows, in America all persons are presumed innocent until the government proves beyond a reasonable doubt that they are guilty. The only reason why courts have not enforced these basic principles in the context of civil asset forfeiture is because of a meaningless formal technicality. As a technical, legalistic matter, a forfeiture proceeding is aimed against property, rather than against the property owner. Furthermore, it is civil in nature rather than criminal. Accordingly, courts have "reasoned" that constitutional rights that would be enforced when people face criminal penalties do not apply in the civil forfeiture context. But this is a complete legal fiction. Often the value of forfeited property far exceeds the amount of any criminal fine that could be assessed even if the government could prove beyond a reasonable doubt that the property owner had committed a crime. And to add insult to injury, the government can confiscate property in a civil proceeding even if the property owner was completely innocent of any crime -- indeed, even if no one had ever committed a crime in connection with the property. Remember: all the government needs is scant "probable cause" to believe that the property was connected to an unlawful activity. Congressman Hyde's bill is an important step toward restoring due process for property owners by changing these unfair evidentiary rules. Under this bill, the government must prove, by clear and convincing evidence, both that the property owner knew of the involvement in unlawful activity, and that he or she consented to such involvement. Congressman Hyde's bill would also allow for the release of confiscated property if the seizure causes a substantial hardship on the owner, a right to sue if confiscated property is damaged through government negligence and a right to court-appointed counsel. Because of these and other important procedural protections it provides, the American Civil Liberties Union urges Congress to promptly pass the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 1993. We also hope that Congress will eventually pass further measures that will completely overhaul civil asset forfeiture programs. Only such a complete overhaul will fully restore fundamental rights for all Americans. --endit-- ============================================================= ACLU Free Reading Room | A publications and information resource of the gopher:// | American Civil Liberties Union National Office | | "Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty"


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