Cops can take your stuff even if you're innocent

Posted at 10:51 AM, Oct 01, 2015
and last updated 2015-10-01 10:51:50-04

COLUMBUS, Ohio -- If you're arrested for a crime in Ohio and police confiscate your car, there's a chance you might not see it again, even if you're innocent. 

But soon, that might change. 

A new bill in the state legislature would weaken law enforcement’s power to permanently keep property seized in an investigation.

If passed, the law would require a person first be convicted before the government can hold onto property such as cars, houses and cash.

Right now, law enforcement only needs evidence of wrongdoing before the government can fully claim ownership of belongings.

“A law that permits the state to take your property based on the suspicion of a crime, but without actually proving your guilt, is an affront to one of our country’s basic principles of justice: that people are innocent until proven guilty,” said State Rep. Robert McColley, R-Napoleon, co-sponsor of the bill.

The proposed law would also put the burden of proof on the government -- not the property owner -- when individuals dispute property seizures.

Lee McGrath, executive director of policy lobbying group Institute for Justice, says this bill would protect Ohioans.

“Representative McColley’s bill strengthens the due process for wives, neighbors and other innocent claimants by putting the burden of proof on the government to prove that the wife, the neighbor had actual knowledge of the crime that was committed or consented to the crime,” McGrath said. 

McGrath gave the example of a case in Michigan in which a man was caught and arrested for soliciting a prostitute. The state wouldn't let his wife get the car back.

While the legislators gave no examples of similar stories happening in Ohio, Mike Brickner, senior policy director with the American Civil Liberties Union of Ohio, said the bill would protect some of Ohio's most vulnerable populations.

“It should be no surprise that the people who suffer the most are people of color and low-income Ohioans,” Brickner said. “Civil asset forfeiture has been a tool to perpetuate injustice on these same people.”

But not everyone sees this as a problem actually affecting Ohioans.

John Murphy, executive director for the Ohio Prosecuting Attorney’s Association, said that government’s power to seize belongings is appropriate. He said police officers and sheriffs in Ohio aren’t abusing this power.

“I think our statutes in Ohio are very good,” Murphy said. “I’ve heard horror stories in other jurisdictions, other states where property was seized that should not have been seized. I understand the concern about that, but our statutes are state of the art.”

Ohio Attorney General’s spokesman Dan Tierney said the office has not taken a stance on the bill yet.

Ben Postlethwait is a fellow in the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism Statehouse News Bureau. You can reach him via email or follow him on Twitter @BCPostlethwait