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Lawmakers take a step toward liberty with reform of civil asset forfeiture laws

Lawmakers take a step toward liberty with reform of civil asset forfeiture laws

Wayne Hoffman
March 3, 2017
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March 3, 2017

Idaho lawmakers took a bold step Thursday in defense of liberty and justice, and they deserve accolades. House members voted 58-10 to reform the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws, in effect limiting when law enforcement can seize a person’s property in connection with a purported drug crime. House Bill 202 now heads to the Senate. Tremendous praise goes to Reps. Steven Harris, a conservative Republican from Meridian and Ilana Rubel, a liberal Democrat from Boise, who have spearheaded the effort.

During deliberations, Harris and Rubel confronted critics who claimed that voting for the bill would be viewed as being “soft on crime.” They countered others who complained that it would tie the hands of law enforcement. Neither concern is true. Instead, House Bill 202 is about fairness, proportionality and transparency.

Consider, for example, what happened not long ago to Dan, who owns a slice of the American Dream, a lovely, private spread in Oneida County. After law enforcement received a tip that Dan had a meth lab on his property, they performed a raid. Dan told me he was awoken around 5 a.m. to the sounds of a commotion outside. He got out of bed, stumbled to the front door, opened it, and found himself face-to-face with countless law enforcement officials, red laser pointers aimed at his torso.

They cuffed Dan and placed him in the back of a squad car. Police proceeded to raid his house and his outbuildings. They combed through his possessions, emptying drawers, rifling through closets. Behind his house, they found an abandoned laetrile lab, housed in a semi trailer, which decades ago was used to experiment with finding natural cures for cancer. It wasn’t a meth lab, but law enforcement declared it such and seized the property therein and the trailer. In Dan’s house, they found a small amount of marijuana for personal use. How did police respond? Officers seized anything of value from Dan’s home. Gold. Silver. Guns. Money.

Ultimately, police did not pursue charges against Dan. But law enforcement kept hold of his property. His lawyers worked to get the property back, with little luck. Dan was told his property would remain with law enforcement with little hope of it being repatriated. After many months, authorities in southeastern Idaho offered Dan a deal: He’d get about 97 percent of what was his. Law enforcement agencies would keep the rest. That 97 percent deal did not include Dan’s semi trailer, which was destroyed for reasons no one has explained. Dan was left with an option: continue to fight for what was his, with legal costs likely to eclipse the cost of his property, or give up and take what was offered. He chose the latter.

An Idaho State Police officer told lawmakers that civil asset forfeiture abuse doesn’t happen in Idaho. But Dan’s case illustrates that it does. How often? No one knows -- because there is no requirement in state law for civil asset forfeitures to be tracked.

House Bill 202 offers several reforms to civil asset forfeiture to protect innocent people like Dan. For example, it declares that the confiscation of one’s assets should be proportional connected with the crime and proportional to the crime alleged. In doing so, it could prevent the recurrence of cases like the one in Oneida County, where assets completely unconnected to Dan’s minor crime were seized simply because they were in Dan’s house where his marijuana was found. HB 202 would also require that records be kept regarding civil asset forfeiture, to allow policymakers to better understand how the law is used and if additional reforms are merited.  

The great liberty scholar John Locke wrote, “Whenever the Legislators endeavor to take away, and destroy the Property of the People, or to reduce them to Slavery under Arbitrary Power, they put themselves into a state of War with the People, who are thereupon absolved from any farther Obedience…”

The right to property is fundamental to our liberty. Property rights are the underpinning of a free society and, importantly, a civil society. House Bill 202 is it an important step in the right direction, balancing law enforcement desires to go after the bad guys with the need to protect property rights and due process of the innocent.

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