clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

DON'T DISTORT USE OF CRIMINAL LAWS

Almost any good idea can be taken too far or used in wrong ways. Laws written with one purpose in mind end up being applied in cases they were never meant to cover. The result can often be a miscarriage of justice.

For example, the 1970 Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act was drafted to get at organized crime infiltrating into legitimate businesses. But some people later began to use civil provisions of the law in ordinary commercial and contract litigation, including the threat of triple damages.If that wasn't distortion enough, the law later was applied - with varied success - against protesters who damaged abortion clinics. What, if anything, that had to do with gangsters, Mafia and the ususal concept of organized crime is baffling.

The latest example of misapplying law arises from the government's power to seize property used in crimes or bought with the profit from crimes.

That sensible authority was originally granted in federal law to hit criminals involved in drug trafficking, where profits can be huge. The federal law is used as a model for seizure policies in several states.

Unfortunately, the power to seize property is too often being used to take property on the basis of questionable evidence and minor violations of the law that have nothing to do with drug trafficking.

The Orlando, Fla., Sentinel recently carried a story about a couple who had their $130,000 home confiscated because the wife was convicted of stealing packages delivered to neighbors' porches. That is a complete perversion of the seizure laws.

Congress is holding hearings this month on the Justice Department's property forfeiture program. Clearly, it needs some fixing. Seizure of drug traffickers' property is still a good idea, but the program must remain narrowly focused and not applied to every case in sight.