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Lansing State Journal op-ed: Innocent until proven guilty? Not quite

June 5, 2015
Opinion Editorial
By U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg and State Rep. Kevin Cotter

"Kind of like pennies from heaven. It gets you a toy or something that you need, is the way we typically look at it."

That's how the Chief of Police from Columbia, Missouri, once described civil asset forfeiture, the process by which law enforcement can seize the personal property — whether cash, cars or personal computers — from Americans with little to no evidence the property was involved in criminal activity.

In fact, government officials can even seize bank accounts they simply suspect were used in crimes like money laundering, forcing the property owner to prove their innocence after the fact.

Innocent until proven guilty? Not under civil asset forfeiture.

This is what happened to Terry and Sandy Dehko, longtime grocers from Macomb County. The federal government used civil asset forfeiture to seize more than $35,000 from their store's bank account under suspicion they had violated federal money laundering statutes.

After months of legal battles, the IRS finally relented because the Dehkos proved they were not money launderers, but rather law-abiding grocers who were simply making small deposits.

Sometimes the abuses happen with local police. Thomas Williams watched handcuffed and helpless as police raided his St. Joseph County home two years ago, confiscating his car, television and cellphone. They auctioned all of his possessions and kept the proceeds, and they are still trying to gain legal ownership of his home. Williams was never charged with a crime.

Our police have an important job to do, and the overwhelming majority of them do it with professionalism and integrity. But we simply cannot accept a system where law enforcement has an incentive to boost their budgets at the expense of innocent citizens.

Civil asset forfeiture laws are a great idea in theory — they hit drug dealers and money launderers right where it counts, in their wallets. But the laws are poorly written and put police in a difficult position. Growing instances of abuse and the heavy burdens placed on innocent people show we need to bring accountability to the system.

For this reason, we are working in both Congress and the Michigan Legislature to reform civil asset forfeiture laws to ensure personal property and due process are protected.

Earlier this year, Congressman Walberg, along with Sen. Rand Paul, led the bipartisan introduction of the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration (FAIR) Act in the U.S. House and Senate, which is the most comprehensive civil asset forfeiture reform effort to date at the federal level.

Last month, Speaker Cotter and his colleagues also introduced a package of civil forfeiture reforms in the Michigan House of Representatives.

These bipartisan initiatives aim to increase transparency of civil asset forfeiture, raise the standard of proof necessary to seize funds, and return to our fundamental understanding of innocent until proven guilty.

We are encouraged by the widespread support for reform from organizations across the ideological spectrum, ranging from the ACLU to FreedomWorks to NFIB. Even some law enforcement organizations have shown a willingness to consider reform, realizing they are better off with good laws and a clear direction.

From every side of the equation, there is a growing momentum to stop forfeiture abuse and enact meaningful bipartisan reforms both in Michigan and across the country.

It is well past time to return the balance of power back in favor of the people and their property rights—even if it means fewer funds for new toys.

U.S. Rep. Tim Walberg represents Michigan's 7th District; State Rep. Kevin Cotter represents Michigan's 99th District. This op-ed was originally published in the June 5, 2015 edition of the Lansing State Journal.

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