Imagine the government seizing a lot of your money without any solid evidence that you had committed a crime, forcing you to fight for more than 13 years to get it back. And even now, you might never see a nickel.
That is exactly what has happened to a Chicago man, Nicholas Marrocco, as reported by Frank Main in Monday’s Sun-Times. Federal drug agents seized more than $100,000 in cash on Dec. 6, 2002, at Union Station from a friend Marrocco had entrusted with the money. They suspected Marrocco and his pal might be involved in the drug trade — who else runs around with cash like that? — but no charges were ever filed, not even for jaywalking, and Marrocco wants his money back.
Under the law, Marrocco might be out of luck. In many such cases, people whose cash, cars or other assets have been seized never get any of it back, even if they never are charged with a crime. In a nation where people are supposed to be left alone as long they follow the law, that doesn’t sit right. Both federal and state laws beg for serious reform.
Supporters of the status quo say civil forfeiture — the right of the government to grab personal assets simply on the basis of suspicion — is an important tool for cracking down on the illegal drug trade, channeling ill-gotten gains from the El Chapos of the world to government agencies, which can then use the money to fight crime.
But a growing chorus of reformers on both the political right and left agree this is one area where the government needs to be reined in. In Illinois, both the right-leaning Illinois Policy Institute and the left-leaning American Civil Liberties Union are demanding reforms. Though no legislation has been drafted, a hearing on the issue was held last week by the Judiciary Civil and Criminal committees of the Illinois House of Representatives in Springfield.
The Institute of Justice, a civil liberties law firm in Arlington, Va., gives Illinois a grade of D- for its civil forfeiture laws and ranks it in the bottom 11 among all states for the protections it gives citizens. The institute says Illinois has a low threshold for permitting forfeitures, has weak protections for innocent third-party property owners and allows an excessive share of forfeiture proceeds to go to law enforcement, incentivizing yet more seizures.
Illinois has “terrible forfeiture procedures unlike those of any other state,” the institute said in a report updated last November.
According to the ACLU, Illinois residents forfeit more than $20 million in property each year to agencies within the state, which doesn’t include seizures in Illinois by the federal government.
State Rep. Elgie Sims Jr., D-Chicago, who helped set up last week’s hearing, said lawmakers are examining the laws of other states to see how Illinois stacks up before drawing up legislation.
“We are trying to make the law more fair to consumers and taxpayers, and trying to make sure that the rules aren’t overly burdensome to individuals,” Sims said.
State Rep. Will Guzzardi, D-Chicago, said the government should be free to seize assets used by proven criminals to commit crimes, but not from citizens who are not convicted of any crime. At the very least, he said, the burden of proof should shift to the government, which should be required to prove criminal acts rather than citizens being forced to prove their innocence.
For many people, the cost of hiring a lawyer and difficulty of navigating a byzantine legal process means they just give up, he said.
Reform is needed on the federal level, too, where the value of seized assets has been soaring. According to the Washington Post, Americans lost more assets in 2014 to the federal government — over $5 billion worth — than they did to all of the nation’s burglars.
To curb abuses, reformers want to get rid of the profit incentive by requiring the federal agencies that seize assets to turn the proceeds over to the general fund. They also want other reforms, including that the government to be required to prove criminal activity by a higher standard of “clear and convincing evidence.”
We’ve heard too many stories of people whose assets were seized and felt they had no reasonable recourse. That’s no way for citizens to be treated by their government.
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