Letter to the House on "The Civil Asset Forfeiture Act of 1999"
June 10, 1999
We are writing to you because of your past support for legislation designed to protect the rights of racial minorities, especially in the area of racial profiling. In this regard, we urge you to support, H.R. 1658, "The Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act of 1999 " which contains much needed reforms that will address some of the injustices under current law. This bill is scheduled to be on the House floor sometime this week. We also urge you to vote against any amendments to this legislation that would weaken its impact - specifically we urge you to oppose the Weiner/Hutchinson amendment.
The connection between civil forfeiture and racial profiling may not be immediately obvious. Yet civil forfeiture takes place in a variety of situations where minority people are targeted by police because of racial profiling. Traffic stops, airport searches and drug arrests are all cases where the government seizes property using civil forfeiture laws. There is a body of research that establishes that minorities are hardest hit in these cases.
Most of the high profile examples of forfeiture abuse are cases where business owners have had property such as homes, cars or businesses seized. These cases receive attention because the property owner can afford to challenge the seizure. Once the forfeiture is contested, the case goes to court and receives press attention. The cases that are not covered are those when lower income people who cannot afford to request a hearing or hire an attorney lose their property.
One example of the type of case that does not receive publicity is the case of an African-American man from Virginia Beach, Virginia. He was stopped by police on June 16, 1998, while driving from Virginia Beach to Wilmington, Delaware. The police officer who stopped him claimed that a taillight was out, which was untrue. Once stopped, the officer subjected him to a search by a drug dog, claiming that he "looked like a drug dealer." The officers asked him if he was carrying drugs, guns or money. He replied that he had $3,500 in cash. The officer seized the money, claiming that it must be the proceeds of drug dealing.
The officer seized his money claiming that it must have been the proceeds of a drug deal. The gentleman was never charged with a crime, nor did he receive a traffic citation. Nor has he been able to get his money back, even after filing complaints with his army captain, the mayor and the governor's office. He was told that to get his money back he would have to hire an attorney which would cost him $2,800. To date, he has been unable to get his money back.
Unfortunately, this case is not an anomaly. Civil forfeiture laws are used routinely against innocent citizens who are deprived of their property without due process of law. Without even charging a person with a crime, the government can take a person's property without a hearing. In order for the person to get his property back he or she must prove the property was "innocent", not used in any criminal activity. The owner has to post a bond worth 10% of the value of the property before he or she is entitled to contest the forfeiture, and the owner is not entitled to legal counsel. Ironically, persons charged in criminal cases are entitled to a hearing in court and the assistance of counsel. The government can avoid the requirement of due process by forfeiting property under civil laws without ever charging a person with a crime. The result is that an innocent person, or a person not charged with a crime, has fewer rights than the accused criminal.
Please vote in support of this important piece of legislation and vote against any amendments that would weaken it.
|Laura Murphy||Hilary Shelton|
|Director Washington National Office|
|American Civil Liberties Union||National Association for the Advancement of Colored People|