Time is running out to protect innocent Virginia property owners from civil asset forfeiture

On Wednesday, the Virginia General Assembly will meet in Richmond for its annual veto session, in which lawmakers will weigh nearly 70 pieces of legislation vetoed or amended by the Governor. Among the bills that will be considered is SB 721, to which an amendment has been offered to require a criminal conviction before the government can take property believed to be used in an illicit activity.

The idea shouldn’t be controversial. Every American has a right to due process under the Fifth Amendment and, in our legal system, anyone who is accused of a crime is presumed innocent until proven guilty. But in Virginia, as well as most other states, these basic constitutional guarantees don’t apply to property seized by the government through civil asset forfeiture. In fact, civil asset forfeiture reverses these principles, automatically assuming that property believed to be used in a crime is guilty until its owner proves otherwise.

Often, the property owner isn’t charged with, let alone convicted of a crime, but, based on a very low standard of proof, the government can seize an innocent individual’s property, leaving them with a potentially very long and very costly legal battle to their stuff back. Not only are there severe constitutional issues related to civil asset forfeiture, in Virginia, law enforcement agencies are incentivized to utilize and abuse the tool, putting innocent people in almost impossible situations.

The right to due process is not only protected by the Fifth Amendment of the U.S. Constitution but also the Virginia Constitution. Section 11 makes clear "[t]at no person shall be deprived of his life, liberty, or property without due process of law" and further states that the right to property is "fundamental." But the Commonwealth, through its civil asset forfeiture laws, have deprived some innocent people of these rights.

Mandrel Stuart, for example, was stopped by Fairfax County Police in August 2012. The owner of a small barbecue restaurant in Staunton, Stuart had nearly $18,000 in cash that he planned to use to purchase equipment, but the police seized the cash, alleging that it was connected to drugs. Stuart was never charged with a crime. Though he was able to get his money back after a lengthy legal fight, Stuart lost his business in the process.

SB 721, as recommended by the governor, would end civil asset forfeiture in Virginia, allowing seizures of money and property believed to be used in a crime only if the owner is convicted of an offense. The Republican-controlled House of Delegates passed similar legislation, HB 1287, earlier this year with strong bipartisan support, but Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment (R-James City) helped kill the bill in committee.

With SB 721 expected to get a vote on Wednesday, Norment is the biggest obstacle to protecting innocent Virginians and their property from abuse of civil asset forfeiture. FreedomWorks activists in the Commonwealth have already lit up the Majority Leader’s phone line with calls urging him to support SB 721, and more calls will come before a vote.

This is a common sense bill. No one should have their property taken from them by their government without due process. That’s a principle in which every conservative believes. But Norment needs to hear from you to do the right thing to protect innocent people from having their stuff taken under false pretenses.