More protection for our property

(Fort Wayne) News-Sentinel

A growing number of states have put restrictions on how the government may seize the money and personal assets of private citizens. Indiana might soon be one of the them, and it can’t come soon enough.

Eight bills have been introduced in this session of the General Assembly aimed at reforming the state’s controversial civil forfeiture law, which is used to raise millions of dollars each year for local law enforcement agencies around the state. Law enforcement officials say civil forfeiture is an important weapon in the fight against organized crime and illegal drugs, but critics, including a couple of lawyers who have sued the state, say it leads to “policing for profits” and abuses of private property rights.

Some of the bills, reports the Indianapolis Star, would allow for the seizure of property only after a criminal is convicted of a crime. Other bills would restrict the way proceeds from civil forfeitures could be used. One calls for a study on the best practices for reforming forfeiture laws, and another calls for a change in the way criminal organizations’ property is seized.

Under current forfeiture law, someone’s property can be seized even without a criminal conviction — even without charges being filed. It can take months or even longer for a citizen to go through the lengthy process of trying to get the property back.

Today, all states allow for forfeiture, and there are more than 400 federal forfeiture statutes. Legal opinions vary on how far the government can go without violating an individual’s property rights.

According to Justice Department data, Indiana State Police seized more than $2.2 million in personal property from Indiana residents in 2014. The Indianapolis Metropolitan Police Department seized roughly $48,022 in personal property that year, according to the data, the Star reports.

That’s a lot of money that can be used in the fight against crime. No one should want police and prosecutors to be deprived of a valuable tool. But the temptation to misuse the law has to be strong, so the safeguards against misuse have to be strong, too.

No bill made it to the floor last year, and Senate President Pro Tem David Long, R-Fort Wayne, says if one makes it this year, it must be something of a balancing act: We would agree, and Hoosiers’ property rights can’t be sacrificed to the fight.

This was distributed by Hoosier State Press Association. Send comments to awoods@tribtown.com.