Civil Forfeiture is Inherently an Abuse of Government Power

In an op-ed for The Columbus Dispatch, president of the Ohio police union Jay McDonald has taken a stand against bipartisan efforts to reform the practice of civil forfeiture, where law enforcement can seize and keep your property without ever convicting you of a crime.

McDonald says:

“Some suggest that law enforcement abuses civil forfeiture, taking assets of innocent people. That’s a reason to have stringent rules in place, which there are. It’s not a reason to take the tool away. Especially in Ohio, where law enforcement has used the tool responsibly and without abuse.”

That is an interesting assessment in a state where one police department in the village of Reminderville used forfeiture proceeds to hire a clown named Sparkles for a community relations event.

To date, Ohio has abysmal civil forfeiture laws. The Institute for Justice’s 2015 national forfeiture report, Policing for Profit, gave Ohio a grade of D-, and a rank of 43rd out of the 50 states and DC.

Under current law, prosecutors in Ohio only have to show that a preponderance of the evidence indicates that seized property was somehow involved in a crime in order to have it forfeited (far less than the familiar standard of “proof  beyond a reasonable doubt”). Ohio law enforcement agencies can then keep up to 100 percent of forfeiture proceeds in most cases, creating a perverse incentive for police departments to keep seizing.

State law also places the burden on innocent owners to prove that they never consented to, or had any knowledge of, the crime their property was allegedly involved in.

Evidently, Mr. McDonald is not particularly concerned with whether or not suspects are proven guilty before being punished. He writes:

“Law enforcement officers often confront people who are clearly drug traffickers, but they don’t actually have any drugs so they can’t be arrested.”

If someone is “clearly” guilty of a crime, then police and prosecutors should be able to prove it in a court of law.

Fortunately, legislators on both sides of the aisle are beginning to realize that civil forfeiture flies in the face of “innocent until proven guilty.”

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