In an interesting coincidence, today’s Las Vegas Review-Journal contains not one but two items about federal forfeiture cases.
On page 1B, Jane Ann Morrison’s column is about the U.S. attorney’s office here demanding a local woman forfeit the $76,667 in salary she earned while running the office of her brother, who was later convicted of mortgage fraud.
On the Opinion page, there is an editorial about a Massachusetts case in which the feds were trying to force the forfeiture of a $1 million motel because a few of its clients dealt in drugs on occasion — 30 arrests out of 125,000 rentals over 18 years.
In the case Morrison writes about U.S. District Judge Roger Hunt called the federal forfeiture effort against Jenna Depue “the most egregious miscarriage of justice I have experienced in more than twenty years on the bench. I refuse to be a party to it.” Of course, the federal prosectors fired back and said the judge’s opinion contained “significant factual and legal errors.”
The whole theory behind forfeiture laws is suspect and smacks of extortion, because in most cases the money or property seized do not go to make restitution to some injured party but to the law enforcement agency itself. In the Massachusetts motel case, 80 percent of the proceeds were earmarked for the local cops and the other 20 percent for the federal drug cops. It is one thing to return unlawfully obtained goods and cash to its rightful owner, but quite another to simply confiscate it for the department coffers.
After the Institute for Justice stepped in a federal court dismissed the motel civil forfeiture action and said the owners were wholly innocent of any wrongdoing.
“This outrageous forfeiture action should never have been filed in the first place,” said Larry Salzman, an Institute for Justice attorney. “What the government did amounted to little more than a grab for what they saw as quick cash under the guise of civil forfeiture.”
Institute for Justice President and General Counsel Chip Mellor said: “The Institute for Justice has documented time and again that civil forfeiture invites a lack of accountability, a lack of due process and a lack of restraints on government authority. Civil forfeiture needs to end. If the government wants to take someone’s property, it should first be required to convict that person of a crime. Short of that, you will end up with what the federal government tried to do in Tewksbury.”
In the case of Jenna Depue, she did plead guilty and testified against her brother, but Judge Hunt insisted she is innocent and the victim of overzealous prosecution. “It appears that the United States attorney’s office has lost sight of the self-imposed mandate that its first priority is not winning cases, but to do justice,” the judge wrote.
Imagine if you worked for someone for 20 years performing perfectly legal duties such as sweeping the floors only to have your boss convicted of a crime and learn the federal prosecutors are demanding you forfeit your life savings because those earnings were the issue of a criminal act.
Whether either case will be appealed is not known.
Forfeiture laws should be greatly reformed or scrapped.
This video was posted prior to the court ruling in the motel case: