It is astounding that a state’s attorney anywhere in Illinois ever thought it was a terrific idea to create his own little police force, dispatch his pretend cops to pull over motorists and try to nail them — pretty much on a hunch — for crimes like drug possession.
The Illinois Supreme Court last week put an end to such silliness. It ruled that the LaSalle County state’s attorney had overstepped his authority. Only real cops can do real cop things.
But the underlying motivation for the state’s attorney’s scheme —a desire to pull in easy money by grabbing cars, cash and other property from people without proof of a crime — remains perfectly legal in Illinois. As long as this is true, you can bet law enforcement officials will overreach.
A bill that would end the worst abuses of this practice by greedy governments, called civil forfeitures, is on Gov. Bruce Rauner’s desk. For the sake of our civil liberties, he should sign it.
As it stands now, authorities can take what they wanted if they merely suspect that property, most often cars or cash, is connected to an illegal enterprise. The idea of innocent until proven guilty does not apply. Nor, for that matter, does the idea of a right to a lawyer for someone who is indigent.
The unfettered and unregulated system has led to a litany of abuses. You could see it play out until recently on I-80 in LaSalle County, where the state’s attorney’s cops ran their scheme. The money went into a kitty that, among other things, was spent on $95,000 worth of trips to law-enforcement conferences in places like Las Vegas.
Typically, a motorist would be stopped on some rules-of-the-road pretext, such as mud flaps too high off the ground. Then a canine drug-detection unit would show up to sniff for drugs. Money was confiscated even from motorists who had committed no crime and were not arrested.
The game ended in LaSalle when a new state’s attorney was elected last fall. The Supreme Court’s ruling assures it won’t happen anywhere again.
The state Legislature this spring passed a bill, now awaiting Rauner’s signature, that places the burden on authorities to prove that seized property is connected to a crime, rather than force individuals to prove it was not. The bill also does away with filing fees called “cost bonds,” equal to 10 percent of the value of the confiscated property. Anyone contesting a forfeiture had to pay a cost bond, and they never got it back, even if they won.
State Rep. Will Guzzardi, D-Chicago, who sponsored the bill in the Illinois House, said it also contains reporting requirements that will make it easier for lawmakers to make revisions in the future if abuses persist.
Law enforcement officials say the civil forfeitures fight crime by seizing the rewards of criminal activity. But in Illinois at least, civil forfeitures sometimes are nothing more than shakedowns.