Today, Americans for Tax Reform joined the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Virginia and the The Institute for Justice in support of Virginia House Bill 1287, which would require a criminal conviction before law enforcement may seize and keep an individual’s private property. The legislation, sponsored by Delegate Mark Cole (R-Va.) passed the full House of Delegates by a vote of 92-6 two weeks ago and is up for a vote in the Senate Finance Committee today.
In a recent hearing of the U.S. House subcommittee on crime, terrorism, homeland security, and investigations, chairman Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) noted, “The government is seizing billions of dollars of cash and property from Americans, often without charging them with a crime.”
There is a bipartisan consensus on this problem. Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) said, “The size of these amounts helps put into focus the tension between our property and due process rights on the one hand, and the government’s interest in maintaining this funding stream on the other, often relying on civil forfeiture procedures involving the low standard of proof…Unfortunately, it is increasingly apparent that our laws are not sufficient in this regard.”
The Virginia Beach Police Department seized $6 million in assets between 2008 and 2013. The city Commonwealth’s Attorney said, “it allows us to be able to afford equipment and training for officers and prosecutors.”
As we note in the letter to the legislature, “policing should be based on public safety, not supplementing local law enforcement department budgets.”
Virginia’s civil asset forfeiture laws are among the worst in the nation. The Institute for Justice gave Virginia a D- because of the low burden of proof in forfeiture cases. The state’s laws are ripe for abuse, with countless examples in Virginia of lives being ruined as a result of seize first and make the defendant prove their innocence next protocols.
As the Richmond Times-Dispatch’s A. Barton Hinkle points out, Mark Cole’s legislation “would have saved a lot of misery for people such as Mandrel Stuart, who couldn’t afford to keep his Staunton barbecue business going after police seized more than $17,000 from him in a minor traffic stop. Unlike many in such straits, Stuart did not agree to settle for half his money back and a promise not to sue. He won in court, but still lost his business."
The burden of proof should not be on private property owners to prove to law enforcement officials that their assets were obtained legally; it should be the other way around.
ATR joins the ACLU and Institute for Justice in urging the Virginia state Senate to pass House Bill 1287.