Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Civil injustice strikes Ohio

Cleveland Plain Dealer
Bob Ewing

For 40 years, Meredith and Luther Ricks did everything the right way. They worked hard, saved carefully and raised a family in their modest Lima home. They were poised to enjoy their retirement years in peace.
Despite their four decades of hard work, however, an absurdly unjust law has turned their hope for the American Dream into an outrageous nightmare at the hands of the Cleveland FBI.
Both of the Ricks spent their careers at the Ohio Steel Foundry, eschewing lavish spending to save for a comfortable retirement. Not trusting banks, Meredith and Luther kept their life savings in a safe inside the house.

Last summer, two violent intruders broke into the Rickses' house. Luther and his son fought with the burglars. After his son was stabbed, Luther broke free, got his gun and saved the family by shooting one of the intruders and scaring the other off.
When Lima police arrived, the Ricks' nightmare should have been over - but it was just beginning.
The police entered the house and discovered the family safe. Because a small amount of marijuana was inside the home - used by Luther to ease his painful arthritis, hip replacement and shingles - the officers decided to confiscate Meredith and Luther's entire life savings, more than $400,000.
Shortly afterward, the FBI got involved - not to help the stricken family, but to claim the money for the federal government.
Such is the result of civil forfeiture laws, which represent one of the most profound assaults on our rights today.
Civil forfeiture can apply to virtually any property: cars, houses, boats and, as the Rickses' case demonstrates, even money. The property can be seized merely on suspicion that it was used in connection with a crime or resulted from criminal activity.
The police did not charge Luther for the shooting - he acted in self-defense - or for the small quantity of marijuana he used as medicine. Under civil forfeiture, the government can confiscate money or property without proving that a person is guilty of criminal misconduct.

While criminal forfeiture requires that a property owner be found guilty of a crime beyond a reasonable doubt, civil forfeiture does not require that the owner even be accused of a crime, much less convicted. The government proceeds directly against the property it wants to take, which means owners are not entitled to any of the protections they would receive if they were accused of a crime.
This bizarre practice was not widespread in the United States until alcohol prohibition and has been used extensively since drug prohibition stiffened in the 1970s and 1980s.
The FBI's adoption of the Lima police's forfeiture is not unusual - the federal government regularly seizes property that was originally confiscated by local authorities and then splits the resulting profits. In Missouri, for example, authorities were recently caught turning forfeitures over to the federal government in order to avoid a legal requirement that proceeds go to schools.

The abuses don't stop there. In the 1990s, police in Louisiana were stealing innocent people's property by fabricating drug crimes. They used the proceeds for ski trips to Aspen.
Civil forfeiture is now a nationwide epidemic with proceeds from federal civil forfeiture alone reaching hundreds of millions of dollars each year. This is part of a larger trend over the past several decades of weakened property rights protection.
In 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the landmark Kelo case that government officials can use eminent domain to buy your home, business, church or farm and then hand your property over to another private entity so long as the new owner promises to generate more tax revenue with your land.
Importantly, a nationwide backlash is under way. Ohio leads the country with a historic unanimous ruling in 2006 by the state's Supreme Court that reined in the awesome power of land confiscation. Forty-two states have now reformed their laws on land grabs, making it harder for governments to take your property to boost their tax revenues.
We desperately need a similar backlash against the abuses of civil forfeiture. Thankfully, Meredith and Luther Ricks are fighting back. With free legal help, this week they filed a notice with the Cleveland office of the FBI, demanding the return of their life savings.
Governments should protect, not plunder, our property. Common sense and justice demand that the rampant abuse of civil forfeiture must end.
Ewing is the assistant director of communications for the Institute for Justice, the nation's leading legal advocate for property rights.

Story here.

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