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Bill seeks overhaul of law on seized property

A conservative congressman was joined Tuesday by liberal legal groups supporting overhaul of a federal law that allows police to seize and keep property from innocent people suspected of crimes.

Rep. Henry Hyde, R-Ill., said Tuesday that while he supports government seizure of property proven to have been obtained through drug trafficking, he is introducing legislation to reform the forfeiture laws because he is concerned about "abuse of power" by law enforcement agencies.

Hyde cited a number of recent reports about abuse of the forfeiture process, beginning with a 1991 series by Scripps Howard News Service that documented more than 400 seizure cases in which innocent people lost money or property to federal authorities because of suspected wrongdoing.

Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union, joined Hyde at a news conference and said: "It is obvious the congressman is not soft on crime. And while we would like to see all civil forfeitures ended, his bill does take an important first step in the right direction."

Hyde's legislation would reform forfeiture laws in several ways, but the most important would be to change the burden of proof in courts.

The government would have to prove "by clear and convincing evidence" that property was purchased with illicit profits or used in committing a crime.

Currently, the burden lies on property owners to prove that their property wasn't involved in criminal activity.

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