By Kenric Ward | Watchdog.org Virginia Bureau
FREDERICKSBURG, Va. – Blasting a “fundamentally un-American” seizure of assets from citizens, a state lawmaker wants to rein in police powers in Virginia.
“Current Virginia law allows for seizure of personal property without a criminal conviction. My legislation would require criminal conviction before property could be taken,” state Delegate Mark Cole told Watchdog.org.
Police and prosecutors “see the current seizure laws as an effective way to take the profit out of crime,” the Fredericksburg Republican noted.
“It is not unusual for someone running a criminal operation to title his assets, which have been purchased with the proceeds of his criminal activities, in someone else’s name, who is not involved in the criminal activity, to try to hide and shield assets,” Cole added.
“(Authorities) are concerned that my legislation would put those assets beyond their reach.”
Not surprisingly, Cole knows of no law-enforcement groups backing his bill that will be heard at the 2015 General Assembly. “I have been contacted by some Commonwealth Attorneys who believe it would make their jobs harder,” he said.
“While I certainly do not want to make the job of our law enforcement officials harder, I believe we need to strengthen our property protections to avoid potential abuse or the taking of property from an innocent person,” he stated.
Cole’s bill, HB 1287, has support from right-leaning tea party groups, as well as the liberal American Civil Liberties Union.
Arlene Smith, lead organizer of the Arlington County Tea Party, commended Cole for challenging what she called “an egregious abuse of power” by Virginia authorities.
John Whitehead, president of the civil-libertarian Rutherford Institute, cited a news account of such abuse.
“Mandrel Stuart, a 35-year-old African-American owner of a small barbecue restaurant in Staunton, Va., was stunned when police took $17,550 from him during a stop in 2012 for a minor traffic infraction on Interstate 66 in Fairfax,” Whitehead related.
“(Stuart) rejected a settlement with the government for half of his money and demanded a jury trial. He eventually got his money back, but lost his business because he didn’t have the cash to pay his overhead.”
Far bigger cases have been reported from coast to coast.
Whitehead said, “Forfeiture is seen increasingly by police as a means for funding police departments in light of state and federal laws allowing police departments to keep most or all of the proceeds.
“With this ‘profit’ motive, police have become aggressive in stopping and interrogating motorists and then seizing cash and other property on mere suspicion, forcing citizens into legal proceedings they may not be able to afford.”
The Charlottesville, Va.-based group has taken no formal position on Cole’s bill, and Whitehead suggested one provision to strengthen it.
“Allow warrantless seizure of assets only upon clear and convincing evidence that the property is connected to specified illegal activity,” Whitehead advised.
“This would be enforced by requiring that a judge promptly review a seizure and its factual basis before the state is allowed to continue to deprive a citizen of his or her property.”
Kenric Ward is a national reporter for Watchdog.org and chief of its Virginia Bureau. Contact him at (571) 319-9824. @Kenricward