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The FBI and other federal law-enforcement agencies are supposed to operate under the nationxe2x80x99s highest laws, but a recent case from Beverly Hills spotlights the degree to which they routinely and unapologetically trample on the Constitution.The Fourth Amendment upholds the xe2x80x9cright of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.xe2x80x9d However, operating under xe2x80x9ccivil asset forfeiturexe2x80x9d laws, law-enforcement agencies seize cash and other private property that they merely suspect is the result of criminal activity.
Under that dubious process, the owners of the property must prove a negative (that their property is not the result of illegal behavior) to have it returned. The feds designed forfeiture laws during the 1980s drug war as a means to target kingpins, but police agencies apply the laws broadly to ordinary Americans because they keep the seized loot for themselves.Many states, including California, have passed reforms that require the agencies to gain a conviction for the underlying drug crime before confiscating property, but the FBI operates under lax federal standards xe2x80x94 and local agencies often xe2x80x9cpartnerxe2x80x9d with federal officials to circumvent tougher state restrictions.
This year, the FBI seized $85 million in contents from safe deposit boxes at a company called U.S. Private Vaults. After indicting the company for alleged offenses, the feds xe2x80x9cdidnxe2x80x99t just seize the companyxe2x80x99s business property,xe2x80x9d but xe2x80x9cbroke into every security deposit box and emptied them of their contents,xe2x80x9d according to the Institute for Justice, a legal group that defends the property owners
.In one instance, they took $57,000 from deposit-box holder Joseph Ruiz. They had no proof of any wrongdoing, but according to news reports argued that he earned insufficient income to have amassed the cash. The money was actually the result of legitimate financial settlements. This situation turns the Constitution on its head.
The government should have to prove that money is the result of ill-gotten gains before taking it. Americans shouldnxe2x80x99t have to prove their innocence after the fact. The government returned the cash after a federal judge ruled that the government xe2x80x9cprovides no factual basis for the seizure of Plaintiffsxe2x80x99 property whatsoever.xe2x80x9dHowever, federal agents confiscated cash, jewelry and coins from 800 people. xe2x80x9c(S)ix months after the raid,xe2x80x9d the Los Angeles Times reported, xe2x80x9cthe FBI and U.S. attorneyxe2x80x99s office in Los Angeles have produced no evidence of criminal wrongdoing by the vast majority of box holders whose belongings the government is trying to keep.xe2x80x9d
One of the FBIxe2x80x99s main arguments is police dogs detected drug scents. As the Times reported, however, the government deposited the money in its bank accounts and didnxe2x80x99t conduct testing to determine which bills contained drug residues xe2x80x94 and dogs often detect cannabis residues even though marijuana is a legal substance in California. Cash passes through many hands.Extensive studies show that drug-sniffing dogs are notoriously unreliable, and their accuracy rates often are no better than a flip of the coin. Some dogs always alert their handlers to the presence of drugs, which reportedly is the result of dogsxe2x80x99 eagerness to please their handlers.
The Beverly Hills case shows why itxe2x80x99s past time for Congress to reform federal asset-forfeiture laws and bring them in line with the protections afforded by the Constitution.