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Forfeiture case is chilling example

Your recent front page article about criminal asset seizures and the Diffenderffers was good investigative reporting ("Seizing assets to take profits from crime," Feb. 17). To recap, Michael Diffenderffer had marijuana plants in his basement. The police discovered them, but he turned up dead, so there was nobody to convict. The government then moved to confiscate the house from his evidently innocent widow in a forfeiture action.

Nowadays, it is apparently routine for the government to take property as punishment before, or without, a conviction. In this case, the government settled for ("extorted" might be a better word) $150,000 from his wife so that she can have her house back.

The question we should all be asking is: Where does the government get the right to do anything like this? A basic American tenet is that we are guaranteed to be treated as innocent up to the point that we are convicted of a crime. If there is no conviction, is this action in any way legal?

Deep down inside, every thinking American knows that these forfeiture actions are a violation of our Constitution, yet nobody says anything. You can bet that when the forfeitures were first proposed, the progenitors thought, "This will never stand up in court, but let's try it anyway." It turns out they got away with it! Our citizens' lack of concern has allowed this basic abridgment of our rights to become a $4.7 billion industry.

The justification that the money is "an absolutely vital" and a "necessary" part of police department budgets is ludicrous. We cannot be financing government at the expense of basic rights. While it may at first seem comforting to hear that the money is "completely reinvested back into the community," that is just saying that the end justifies the means.

Our legislators and all the lawyers that are running around loose in this country have been asleep at the switch. If the rest of us don't complain loud and long, we can expect this unconstitutional practice to continue unabated and we can also expect a lot more sacrifice of our rights and well-being.

Jack Wickham, Glen Arm

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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