Good step on asset forfeiture

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder participates in the Building Communities of Trust roundtable discussion in Philadelphia on Thursday, Jan. 15, 2015. (AP Photo/Philadelphia Inquirer, David Maialetti, Pool)

Civil asset forfeiture has produced widespread seizures of private property by government without proof of wrongdoing. It also has forfeited far too many Americans’ fundamental right to be considered innocent until fairly being found guilty.

So Attorney General Eric Holder deserves credit for moving to reduce the abuse of that practice.

On Jan. 16, he issued an order prohibiting, albeit with some troubling exceptions, state and local law enforcement agencies from seizing citizens’ property without evidence that a crime has occurred.

Civil asset forfeitures have been increasingly authorized by the legislative, executive and judicial branches over the last half century.

In the early 1970s, the rationalization for that dangerous expansion of government power was to combat organized crime. In 1985, the federal “Equitable Sharing Program” took aim at the War on Drugs. Since 2001, civil forfeiture also has been used in the War on Terror.

According to The Washington Post, assorted law enforcement agencies in the U.S. have seized more than $2.5 billion in civil asset forfeitures since 9/11.

Horror stories of injustice have proliferated, driven in part by the financial motives of police departments that can legally retain those seized assets.

A typical case of overreaching asset forfeiture, as reported by Investors Business Daily:

“In 2013, an elderly West Philadelphia couple had their home seized by the state because their son allegedly sold small amounts of marijuana to an informant from the house’s front porch. It didn’t matter if he was convicted; the state pursued the seize-and-sell process.”

And Attorney General Holder’s order, though a welcome step, still allows asset forfeiture for “public safety reasons” and exempts “seizures pursuant to federal seizure warrants, obtained from federal courts to take custody of assets originally seized under state law.”

Clearly, the Senate Judiciary Committee should ask Justice Department attorney Loretta Lynch, the president’s nominee to replace Mr. Holder, her views on asset forfeiture during confirmation hearings that begin today. After all, Ms. Lynch has handled many forfeiture cases for the agency.

Yet she did recently drop a controversial one against a Long Island, N.Y., family that, though falling under IRS suspicion after making many cash deposits from their small business, was neither charged nor convicted of a crime.

In issuing his order to reduce such seizures, Mr. Holder said, “This is the first step in a comprehensive review that we have launched of the federal asset forfeiture program.”

Apparently, the excessive — and constitutionally dubious — practice of civil asset forfeiture is finally in retreat.

It’s about time.