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2015 bill in Virginia requires conviction for civil asset forfeiture

Civil asset forfeiture is a controversial topic across the nation. It allows law enforcement to keep various forms of capital—money and property—seized from those accused of crimes. In Virginia, one state legislator is receiving bipartisan support to change the law.

Virginia Republican and State Delegate Mark Cole is sponsoring a bill for discussion during the 2015 legislative session starting in January. The bill would require a criminal to be convicted before police could keep their money and property. Currently, police are able to keep the assets seized from people who have been accused of a crime but never convicted.

The Virginia Forfeited Asset Sharing Program allows sheriff’s offices and local prosecutors to keep 80 percent of the proceeds collected through civil asset forfeiture, which can include cash, cars, and other property.

Delegate Cole stated to The Free Lance-Star that “I think it’s fundamentally un-American that the government can seize your property without ever having to prove that you are in collusion to criminal acts.”

Currently, owners of the seized property must prove in civil court that the assets are not related to criminal activity, even if they haven’t been convicted of a crime. In these proceedings, the defense and prosecution must convince a judge and jury that they have a preponderance of the evidence supporting their claims.

This bill is supported by the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia. Virginia ACLU Executive Director Claire Guthrie Gastanaga told The Free Lance-Star that “We think Delegate Cole’s bill is an important protection for people’s property rights and their constitutional rights.”

Delegate Cole’s bill would not prevent police from taking property, but would require them to return the assets if there is no criminal conviction. Property owners, he said, need more protection than current laws provide. Fredericksburg police Chief David Nye said in a statement to The Free Lance-Star that the requirement of a criminal conviction prior to forfeiture is not unreasonable.

This practice is not one limited solely to the states. In 2000, the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act was passed, allowing the federal government to seize money from a variety of criminal syndicates. These included mobsters, drug dealers and terrorist organizations. Unfortunately, the rules are written in ways that end up penalizing and punishing ordinary citizens. On October 25th, the New York Times published an article detailing a number of personal accounts of people suffering because of the federal application of this practice.

Army Sgt. Jeff Cortazzo of Arlington was saving up for his daughters’ college education when the IRS seized $66,000 of his money—it cost him $21,000 to get the remainder back. He had been advised by a bank teller to deposit less than $10,000 at a time to avoid being taxed twice on money he earned. The teller neglected to tell him that this practice goes against IRS structuring requirements. The IRS seized his money because they assumed he was trying to avoid a regulation of which he wasn’t even informed.

When no criminal activity is charged, the IRS often negotiates to return only part of the seized money, leaving impoverished citizens with little option but to accept the IRS’ offer or continue a lengthy and very expensive legal battle to try to get their legitimately earned money back.

Richard Weber, the chief of Criminal Investigation at the IRS, said in a statement given to the New York Times, “After a thorough review of our structuring cases over the last year…IRS-CI will no longer pursue the seizure and forfeiture of funds associated solely with ‘legal source’ structuring cases unless there are exceptional circumstances justifying the seizure and forfeiture and the case has been approved at the director of field operations level.”

The Washington Post reported on Oct. 11 that the federal Equitable Sharing Program has also provided local police the funding for weapons, armed vehicles and surveillance gear, much like another federal program that supplies military surplus and equipment to local police forces at no cost to the local police. Eighty percent of asset seizures go to local enforcement, with 20 percent turned over to the feds. The program has netted about $2 billion.

Some say the program has turned into a “slush fund” for local police agencies. The Washington Post reported that “Officially the program is not intended as ‘an alternative funding source for state and local law enforcement,’ said Justice Department spokesman Peter Carr. ‘Any funds received through the equitable sharing program are meant to enhance and supplement, not supplant or replace the agency’s appropriated budget and resources.'”

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Joan M. Bishop

Joan M. Bishop is a patient's rights advocate based in Fredericksburg, VA and writes about healthcare issues at http://yourpatientsrights.com/ Twitter: @PatientRightsAd

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Categories: Citizen Spotlight, Courts & Law, Government Transparency, Must Read
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