Civil asset forfeiture - which critics say allows the government to take property from people who are never charged with a crime, let alone convicted - would be curtailed, under legislation introduced by Sen. Rand Paul.
Washington Post writer Radley Balko explains that the Kentucky Republican's proposal aims to halt the practice under which federal and state law enforcement agents seize millions of dollars from civilians during traffic stops.
This is often done simply by law enforcement asserting that they believe the money is connected to some illegal activity - without ever pursuing criminal charges.
Under federal law and the laws of most states, they are entitled to keep most (and sometimes all) of the money and property they seize, Paul argues. The senator - and likely 2016 Republican presidential candidate's - proposal "would change federal law and protect the rights of property owners by requiring that the government prove its case with clear and convincing evidence before forfeiting seized property," he said in a statement.
"Current law puts the burden on innocent owners to show they did not know about the illegal use or 'did all that reasonably could be expected under the circumstances to terminate such use,'" Reason's Jacob Sullum wrote recently. "In other words, property owners are guilty until proven innocent, turning an ancient principle of justice on its head."
It's the sort of issue that could find common ground between law enforcement-weary libertarian types, and Democrats, long distrustful of police power. The proposal could potentially drive new flocks of voters to Paul as he pursues a bid for the GOP presidential nomination over the next year-and-a-half.The Washington Post's Balko says that whatever political benefits the civil asset forfeiture issue might or might not reap for Paul, it is good policy.
"The bill would also require states 'to abide by state law when forfeiting seized property,'" Balko writes. "This is important. Currently, a number of state legislatures across the country have passed reform bills to rein in forfeiture abuses. The problem is that the federal government has a program known as 'adoption' or 'equitable sharing.' Under the program, a local police agency need only call up the Drug Enforcement Administration, Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives or similar federal agency."
"That agency then 'federalizes' the investigation, making it subject to federal law," Balko adds. "The federal agency then initiates forfeiture proceedings under the laxer federal guidelines for forfeiture. The feds take a cut and then return the rest - as much as 80 percent - back to the local agency."