Only seize assets of convicted criminals

Innocent until proven guilty? Not under the old asset forfeiture programs many police departments and prosecuting attorneys used for years.

Extreme abuses, ranging from confiscating assets of people who had nothing to do with crimes to tying up cars and other belongings before defendants ever went to trial, were reported widely under that program. So egregious were the abuses that former President Barack Obama’s Justice Department curbed asset forfeiture severely.

Now President Donald Trump wants to give it another try — but this time, with new safeguards.

Asset forfeiture, when practiced fairly, can have a dual benefit. First, it punishes criminals. There is nothing like losing his home to penalize a drug dealer.

Second, law enforcement agencies that seize assets can sell them and put the proceeds to good use in fighting crime. Saranac Lake police have made a total of $19,500 through the U.S. Department of Justice’s Equitable Sharing Program, according to a DOJ database accessible through a Syracuse.com article. Lake Placid police received $33,000. The Franklin County District Attorney’s Office got more than $325,000. New York State Police got more than $27,500,000.

But the key is ensuring that only those convicted of committing crimes should have their belongings taken by the government — and even then, there should be limits. New York is tougher on this than some states, but there have still been abuses, according to the Syracuse.com article.

A proposal by the Trump administration sounds promising. It involves a practice called “adoptive forfeiture,” under which police can get around restrictive state laws on seizures by taking property under federal law. Uncle Sam likes that because any proceeds then must be shared with the federal government.

Proposed changes from past practice include requiring more probable cause that crimes were committed, often insisting on actual convictions before property can be taken by the authorities.

Abuse of the asset forfeiture system caused law enforcement agencies to lose a valuable tool against crime. But the reality is that what happened was their own fault.

Trying again is a good idea, but at the very first indication asset forfeiture is being abused again, the White House should put the lid back on it.

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