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EDITORIAL: Federal spending bill rightly diminishes civil forfeiture program

Congress passed the federal omnibus spending bill so that we could find out what’s in it. This particular Washington sausage has its share of unsavory parts, but it contains some choice cuts of meat as well — some of which we’re finally learning about, now that we have an opportunity to read it. Among the legislation’s most satisfying provisions are budget cuts that have forced the Justice Department to suspend a program that violates the rights of Americans on a regular basis.

Civil forfeiture laws allow authorities to take and keep your stuff without charging you with a crime. They don’t have to arrest you. They don’t have to convict you. They don’t even have to write you a ticket. And to get your stuff back, whether it’s cash, jewelry, a laptop, a vehicle or even a house, defendants face the costly burden of proving their property was obtained lawfully, a standard that turns due process rights upside down.

Enacted decades ago to help police and prosecutors, prevent criminals from keeping the proceeds of their offenses (primarily drug profits) and to provide restitution to their victims, civil forfeiture laws now primarily serve as a funding mechanism for law enforcement. The Justice Department works with state and local police to grab cash and property, then splits the take. The practice has been correctly dubbed by the nonprofit Institute for Justice as “policing for profit.”

However, thanks to the omnibus bill, the Justice Department’s “equitable sharing” program has been shelved.

Under the program, local police could choose to pursue civil forfeiture under federal law — which is far less burdensome than many state forfeiture laws — and more quickly get access to seized cash. But now that Washington can’t afford to share those proceeds, police in Nevada and elsewhere won’t have an incentive to, ahem, “partner” with federal officials. That should lead to fewer dubious asset seizures, such as an illegal confiscation from a motorist traveling through Nevada on Interstate 80, which was thrown out by a federal judge this year after prosecutors deliberately withheld evidence that the traffic stop was improper.

It’s a good step, one that shouldn’t have required a massive budget bill to be passed. Now lawmakers must take the next step and roll back the statute itself.

This editorial first appeared in the Las Vegas Review-Journal on Wednesday.

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