Don’t use forfeiture laws to target innocent people

SHARE Don’t use forfeiture laws to target innocent people

Kara Bland sits in her car on April 5 in Chicago. Bland was a victim of a contentious practice that allows law enforcement to seize vehicles, cash and other property thought to be connected to a crime, and to profit from it. The plight of innocents whose property is seized has helped fuel a flurry of legal changes throughout the country that seek to limit such police powers. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

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Illinois shouldn’t be permitted to seize your property just because someone in authority has a hunch it’s tenuously connected to a crime.

But, right now, that’s the law. The state’s forfeiture rules let Illinois and local law enforcement officials grab cars, cash, real estate or pretty much any personal property at any time. They just have to suspect that property — usually cars or cash — was involved in a crime or was purchased through the profits of an illegal enterprise.

Innocent until proven guilty doesn’t apply in civil forfeiture cases, nor do indigent people have a right to a lawyer. In a pernicious twist, someone who contests a forfeiture must pay filing fees and a “cost bond” equal to 10 percent of the value of the confiscated property just to appeal. Even if they win, they only get 90 percent of their cost bond back, and they can’t recover their legal fees. No innocent person wants to be caught up in a Kafkaesque system like that.

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The horror stories have been endless. The Associated Press reported this week that police seized Kara Bland’s 2010 Chevy Malibu when she allowed the father of her daughter drive it and he picked up someone who had marijuana on him. It took her nine months and $1,000 to get it back. A Quad Cities woman’s car was impounded for five months because her grandson drove it with a suspended license. As long ago as 2004, the Sun-Times reported the story of a woman whose car was seized when police suspected what turned out to be Pringles crumbs on her back seat was cocaine. It took her three months to get it back, including fighting a $2,555 city fee.

Two bills in the Legislature, backed by some lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, would rewrite the law to help protect innocent people caught up in forfeiture proceeds. The bills should be a priority for this session.

Law enforcement officials say the civil forfeitures  system fights crime by seizing the rewards of criminal activity. The money, much of which goes to police and prosecutors, also supports law enforcement activities.

But there’s no reason the law can’t keep those benefits — say, allowing the seizure of a well-known drug house or $200,000 in profits from drug sales — while also preventing innocent people from getting swept up in an onerous process stacked against them in which the cost of recovering their property can easily exceed its value.

State Sen. Don Harmon, D-Oak Park, sponsor of the Senate version of the bill, said the legislation would still allow forfeitures, but the burden of proof would shift to authorities, who would have to prove a crime was committed and the owner of the property was complicit. That’s just common sense.

The bill also would redirect how forfeiture gains are distributed to limit the risk of any particular law agency using the money as an “unfettered piggybank,” Harmon said. Instead, it would channel the proceeds to social services and specific law enforcement programs.

Some law agencies have been criticized for how they spend money gained through forfeitures. For example, the Chicago Lawyer magazine reported that more than $95,000 of La Salle County’s drug forfeiture account was spent on employee trips to law-enforcement conferences at such locations as Las Vegas.

Last year, a joint report by two groups on the opposite sides of the political spectrum — the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois and the Illinois Policy Institute — said Illinois law enforcement agencies get about $30 million a year through forfeitures. The joint report called for reforms.

State Rep. Will Guzzardi, D-Chicago, sponsor of the bill in the House, said backers of the legislation are “working with all the stakeholders” to craft a widely supported bill.

The final version needs to be something that protects innocent people and their property from being caught up in an unfair and arbitrary system.

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