Muskogee Phoenix: Forfeiture Law Must Be Reworked

The Muskogee Phoenix

It’s past time for our state legislators to pull the plug on a law as old as our country.

Civil forfeiture — the ability for government to seize assets from a criminal enterprise — has been around since before the Founding Fathers set foot in North America, but its use began escalating in the 1980s along with the war on drugs.

Law enforcement is allowed to seize assets without an indictment, trial or conviction of a suspect.

The forfeiture must be approved by a judge, but the property owner must prove that the property was not the product of a criminal act.

If the property owner takes on that task and loses, seized assets become the property of the government and shared with the law enforcement agency that seized them in the first place.

At their best, these laws help deter criminal activity and keep offenders from profiting from their illegal activity.

But civil forfeiture laws can create an unseemly perception that law enforcement uses the law to bolster an underfunded department. Critics say it creates a motivating factor for asset seizures.

As an example, law enforcers can detain a suspect and if officers find cash, can seize the funds as the proceeds of a criminal activity.

Again, a judge is supposed to agree that the seizure is legal.

But travelers who are just passing through must wait months or years to get their cash or property back. Legal due process can take a take a back seat to expedience.

This is not to say that law enforcers are guilty of anything.

But the perception is there if people are given the choice of leaving town without their property and without a conviction.

State legislators must do what’s right for civilians first, law enforcers second in this case.

The civil forfeiture law is being studied and the findings of that study won’t be acted upon until the next legislative session in 2017.

That gives legislators plenty of time to get opinions from law enforcers and civil rights activists and do what’s right.

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