Confiscation Laws Destroy US Citizen Property Rights
America Was A Special Place
The Early American Men & Women Believed In
Freedoms and Laws
What Happened to these ideas?
Punishing The Innocent
Post-Dispatch Commentary on OpEd Page
"One of the most troubling recent decisions handed down
by the U.S."
Sunday, March 31, 1996
By Rance Thomas
Supreme Court occurred a few weeks ago on the forfeiture of private
property. Not only was the decision itself disturbing but so was the rationale
supposedly justifying it.
The decision involved the seizure of the car of an innocent victim, Tina
Bennis of Michigan, because a crime was committed in it. Bennis' husband,
John, was caught having sexual relations with a prostitute in the car owned
jointly by the Bennises. Tina Bennis was unaware that her husband was committing
such a crime in their car. In a 5-to-4 decision, the U.S.
Supreme Court upheld the Michigan's court decision in the forfeiture of
This decision and others relating to forfeiture of private property threaten
our right to ownership of private property. It means the invasion of our
privacy by the state and its agents. If this decision prevails, no one will
be safe from the actions of overzealous prosecutors and police. We must
not allow the erosion of our civil or basic rights for any reason even in
the pursuit of a noble purpose. Everyone's rights must be protected, the
innocent as well as the guilty. If one person's rights are violated and
we stand by and do nothing, we condone and contribute to the violation.
"Come On, Mr. and Mrs. Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.
Make My Day!"
If this decision is allowed to stand, there will be future abuses. For example,
any property could be seized if a crime is committed in it or on it, regardless
of whether the owner was involved or aware of it.
The rationalization of the court's majority opinion is disturbing. Chief
Justice William H. Rehnquist stated that Mrs. Bennis' appeal "has considerable
appeal" but there was no getting around the "long and unbroken
line" of precedent.
With this reasoning, we would still have slavery, police-beating confessions
and many other rights violations. Justices Clarence Thomas and Ruth Bader
Ginsberg in their concurring opinions also wrote baffling opinions. Thomas
reasoned that "the federal Constitution does not prohibit everything
that is intensely undesirable." Ginsberg said the court was not supporting
"an experiment to punish innocent third parties." If this decision
does not punish innocent third parties, what does? Further, if citizens
cannot have a reasonable expectation that the U.S. Supreme Court will protect
their rights from the excesses of the state and its agents, to whom can
they turn? Only Congress now has the opportunity to protect our rights.
Several members of Congress have attempted to do this in recent months -
so far without success.
Rep. John Conyers of Michigan introduced a bill last year, but unfortunately
it did not pass; nor was it reintroduced in the current Congress. This bill
would have corrected many of the dubious practices around the nation by
eliminating civil-asset forfeiture. In other words, it would have eliminated
forfeiture without a conviction.
In the current Congress, Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., introduced HB 1916, the
"Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Act," which would address some
of the concerns regarding current practices. This bill has been languishing
in the Judiciary Committee apparently without sufficient supporters to have
it brought to the House floor. A spokesman for the committee said he "still
has hopes for it during this session." However, he did not sound enthusiastic
or optimistic about its chances of passing.
Although Hyde's bill could shift the burden of proof from the individual
to the government in forfeiture decisions, it does not go far enough to
protect our rights. The bill, however, would establish the right to counsel
in proceedings related to claims of seized property. It would establish
the right for a claimant to gain "immediate release of seized property
for substantial hardship" reasons. It would also eliminate the seizure
of property in controlled-substance cases when a crime was committed "either
without the knowledge of the owner or without" the owner's consent.
Why aren't members of Congress clamoring to support this and similar bills
to protect our rights? Could it be that they are concerned about being labeled
"soft on crime"? It seems that the only way our rights can be
assured is for Congress to enact legislation that would ensure protection.
We must be protected from the zeal of those who, although well-intentioned,
would take away our property.