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Woman fought U.S. for home after husband's porn conviction

Abusive BehaviorJustice System

After her then-husband was convicted on pornography charges involving the abuse of her two daughters at their home, an Anne Arundel County woman just wanted to move out. But her plans hit a snag when federal prosecutors tried to take her husband's share in the house.

The Justice Department attempted to seize the property because it had been used in the commission of a crime, drawing protests from the woman and a rebuke from a federal judge. The government ultimately dropped the effort, but the case is another example of federal prosecutors' aggressive use of asset forfeiture laws.

Federal prosecutors have the power to take assets linked to people suspected of committing a variety of crimes, even if the suspect is not criminally charged or convicted. Authorities say seizing money and property takes the profit out of crime, but critics of the practice say it can hurt innocent bystanders.

In the Anne Arundel County case, the woman's husband and another man were convicted in 2009 of child pornography offenses connected to two years of abuse against his two daughters, ages 4 and 6 at the time. He was caught in 2008 when a SWAT team raided the family's home.

Details of the case came to light recently, after the woman sued more than 260 people she alleges viewed the images of her children being abused. She is seeking $8 million in compensatory damages and $24 million in punitive damages.

To protect the identities of the children, The Baltimore Sun is not naming the people involved in the case.

Federal prosecutors said they would not evict the woman and promised to place any money they raised through forfeiture into a fund for the children, according to court records. But she objected, saying she would be trapped in the home where the crimes took place.

"[She] would like to move her family to a new home in order to remove her children from the scene of her husband's criminal activities," her attorney wrote in a court filing. "She believes that remaining in the current home is psychologically damaging for her family."

People whose property is used in a crime without their knowledge can fight their cases in court, but prosecutors argued that the government had a right to her husband's share of the home.

"The defendant's spouse cannot prevent the Government from realizing its forfeited interest in the property," Assistant U.S. Attorney Stefan D. Cassella wrote in a court filing.

Ultimately, a federal judge sided with the woman and asked prosecutors to back off.

"Justice sometimes is achieved by good lawyering which, in my judgment, in this case means the Government stepping back and not pursuing every legal argument that may be available to it," U.S. District Judge Frederick Motz wrote in an memo on the case. "I very much hope that the Government will decide to accept my ruling."

iduncan@baltsun.com

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