EDITORIAL: Forfeiture bill a good first step for police reform

Senate Democrats last week blocked a Republican police reform bill, but perhaps they could find common ground on GOP Sen. Rand Paul’s decision to resurrect his proposal to reform civil asset forfeiture.

On Friday, Sen. Paul — along with Mike Lee, R–Utah; Mike Crapo, R–Idaho; and Angus King, I–Maine — brought back the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration Act, which addresses federal forfeiture abuses. The measure previously died in committee in 2014.

Under civil forfeiture laws, law enforcement agencies may seize cash, homes, cars and other valuables from people who are never charged, let alone convicted, of any crime. Property owners may challenge such actions, but they do not enjoy the presumption of innocence and instead bear the costly and difficult burden of proving that the inanimate object in question was not involved in illegal activity. To make matters worse, many police agencies are allowed to keep a portion of the proceeds generated by forfeited assets, creating an incentive to go after the big score.

Forfeiture laws became popular in the 1980s as part of the drug war and were intended to separate criminal kingpins from their ill-gotten gains. But several high-profile abuses in recent years have focused a more high-intensity spotlight on the practice. For instance, a New Yorker magazine investigation in 2013 revealed that one small Texas town created a whole cottage industry of threatening those stopped for minor traffic violations with various criminal charges unless they agreed to “forfeit” items such as cash or jewelry. Often, the victims are the poor or immigrants who are unlikely to fight back.

Sen. Paul’s bill would eliminate a process called “equitable sharing” that currently allows local police to team up with federal agencies to avoid falling under more strict state laws covering civil forfeiture. It also adds protections for property owners by demanding “clear and convincing evidence” that the property in question was involved in a crime. Those whose property is taken would automatically be entitled to an attorney under the measure, and any forfeiture proceeds would go into the Treasury’s general fund rather than to individual agencies.

“The FAIR Act will uphold the Fifth Amendment and ensure government agencies no longer profit from taking American citizens’ property without due process,” Sen. Paul said in a statement. “It will guard against abuse while maintaining the ability of courts to order the surrender of proceeds of crime.”

Sen. Paul’s legislation has a companion in the House sponsored by Rep. Tim Walberg, R-Mich. Those members of Nevada’s congressional delegation who are truly interested in police reform should sign on to the appropriate bill and help push legislation to the president’s desk. No American should lose his or her house or property without first being convicted of a crime.