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Journal Times editorial: No asset forfeiture without a conviction

Journal Times editorial: No asset forfeiture without a conviction

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The photo stood out near the top of the front page of the Jan. 30 Journal Times: A Cadillac Fleetwood with gold-colored rims, with the Drug Abuse Resistance Education logo on the rear passenger door, the Racine Police Department logo on the front passenger door and the words “confiscated from a local drug dealer” on the passenger side quarter panel. In the mid-‘90s and beyond, it was a useful tool for Racine Police, both to encourage kids to say no to drugs, and to tell drug dealers “If we catch you, your fancy car becomes our fancy car.”

We’re fine with, for example, drug dealers losing assets upon conviction in court. What we take issue with is asset forfeiture being imposed upon someone not yet convicted of a crime.

State Sen. David Craig, R-Town of Vernon, has introduced a bill which would reform how government seizes crime-related. The bill puts restrictions on how law enforcement can seize property, known as civil asset forfeiture, and how it can use proceeds from sales of that property.

Among the proposed requirements is that a criminal conviction must occur; that forfeiture be proportional to the crime committed; and that all proceeds from a forfeiture be set aside for schools. The bill also raises the burden of proof in forfeiture cases.

Craig argues the reforms are “an important step to ensure that no person is deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law, as guaranteed by the 5th Amendment.”

Under current law, a person’s property can be taken from them not only without a conviction, but without even a criminal charge filed against them, Craig said.

We agree with Sen. Craig’s central point, that there should be no forfeiture in the absence of a conviction. We believe that if property is seized from a suspect as evidence, if that suspect is found not guilty the property should be immediately returned. State Sen. Bob Wirch, D-Somers, is a co-sponsor of the bill, and the American Civil Liberties Union has expressed support.

In opposition to Craig’s bill is a fellow Republican, Racine County Sheriff Christopher Schmaling. He said he opposes it and plans to testify against it. County sheriffs and other law enforcement officials spoke out against the bill when it was introduced in the last legislative session, saying asset forfeiture is an important tool in fighting against drug crimes.

Officials also have said the money seized helps offset the cost of new equipment and drug task forces.

We don’t agree with the bill’s provision that forfeiture proceeds would be set aside for schools. We have other means to raise funds for schools, and we concede the sheriffs’ point about forfeiture proceeds being an important part of law enforcement departmental funding. We would have forfeiture proceeds go to the law enforcement agencies whose work helped produce the conviction in question.

But we don’t want law enforcement agencies to be dependent upon asset forfeiture proceeds, either. If this is too large a portion of any agency’s funding, we would prefer that agency take up the matter with its municipal or county government.

We don’t mind seeing convicted criminals lose assets acquired through criminal activity. But we share Sen. Craig’s view that the threshold must be that a conviction has occurred.

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