A state lawmaker is introducing a bill to reform Ohio’s statutes permitting law enforcement agents to seize people’s cash and property without first proving a crime has occurred.
State Rep. Robert McColley (R-Napoleon), the bill’s sponsor, says his legislation would ensure citizens’ rights to due process and the presumption of innocence are protected in civil forfeiture proceedings.
“Essentially, what [the bill] does is ensure that in order for anybody to lose their property through a forfeiture proceeding, they must first be charged with a crime and then subsequently convicted of that crime,” McColley said. “Now, under Ohio law, there is something called provisional title, which essentially means that the state can hold temporary title to the property during the course of legal proceedings if that property is subject to forfeiture. That is still in place, but in order for the final transfer of title to occur, there must be a conviction of the underlying crime that is the basis for the forfeiture.”
Current System ‘So Unjust’
McColley says his bill is a modest change to the state’s legal system to eliminate a systemic form of injustice.
“We’re not doing this to be reactive towards abuses,” McColley said. “It’s just the prospect that somebody can have their property taken from them on the suspicion of a crime without even being charged with that crime is what makes civil asset forfeiture so unjust.”
McColley says the legal system should not presume guilt when dealing with citizens accused of crimes.
“What this does do is when the property gets in to our court system, it causes everybody to take a breath,” McColley said. “We demand a higher standard of proof from the government, if we are going to take that property, especially when it is from an innocent third party.”
John Malcolm, director of The Heritage Foundation’s Edwin Meese III Center for Legal and Judicial Studies, says civil asset forfeiture laws rig the game against property owners.
“Law enforcement personnel often have property owners over a barrel,” Malcom said. “Challenging a seizure is expensive and difficult. Property owners often feel they have no choice but to accept a settlement, where they voluntarily relinquish most of the property in exchange for quickly receiving a small portion back. In these situations, law enforcement does not have to prove any actual connection between property and crime, let alone charge and convict the owner of a crime.”
Malcolm says civil asset forfeiture laws also violate basic American principles.
“If your property can be taken away on the basis of a crime without even being charged of a crime, then it violates the most basic principle of our criminal justice system, that people are innocent until proven guilty. It is an affront to that principle,” Malcom said.
Matt Hurley ([email protected]) writes from Cincinnati, Ohio.