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Criminal Justice & Legal System

Walberg bills could make it harder for police to seize property

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Michigan Congressman Tim Walberg has re-introduced a package of bills intended to restrain the powers of government authorities to seize assets from citizens.

Walberg says too often, police use forfeiture powers as a revenue stream, rather than a crime-fighting tool.

Walberg cites the example of Terry Dehko, a longtime Michigan grocer, who had $35,000 in bank accounts frozen by the IRS because the agency suspected him of being a money launderer. 

The only evidence the agency had was frequent deposits of cash into his accounts.

Walberg says the IRS never asked Dehko why he was making frequent cash deposits.  In fact, Dehko's insurance company required him to keep less than $10,000 in cash on premises at all times.

It took Dehko nearly a year to prove his innocence and get his money back.

"This is something that should not be taking place in America," says Walberg. "We have to get a handle on drug running, money laundering and the like, but let's not do it at the expense of civil liberties."

Walberg says in another instance, the FBI in conjunction with local police seized the assets of an entrepreneur's startup company.

The man eventually proved he was innocent of any crime, but it was too late. His business was gone.

Walberg says law enforcement agencies unfairly seized more than $2 billion in assets from people who were never charged with a crime.

Walberg co-authored the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration Act (FAIR Act) with U.S. Senator Paul Rand.

The legislation would require law enforcement to have "clear and convincing" evidence of criminal activity in order to make a civil seizure of assets, rather than the less strict standard of "preponderance" of evidence.

It would also forbid the practice of sharing seized assets among participating agencies, such as local police and the FBI.  He says that practice encourages unfair property seizures.

Walberg says the bills would only change federal law, however.  There are local and state laws which permit the lower standard for property seizures, but he hopes changing the federal law will encourage state legislatures to reexamine their own laws.

Walberg says the bill has strong bi-partisan support, with "proud liberals" and civil liberties groups backing it.  He thinks there's a good chance of getting it through the House and Senate and on the President's desk.