The Crusader Newspaper Group

Senator aims to change law that lets cops take homes and money

By Chinta Strausberg, Chicago Crusader

Saying it is time to change an Illinois law allowing cops to legally seize homes, cars and personal funds they find even if a person is innocent, Senator Patricia Van Pelt (D-5th) said she working to revamp the legislation, which she calls illegal.

It’s an issue that has become a national concern as other states debate whether such laws violate one’s civil and constitutional rights.

“We need people to advocate and raise issues like this,” said Van Pelt. She said the absence of advocates in Springfield is a huge problem for lawmakers and the civil asset forfeiture bill is a prime example.

“Law enforcement officials are supposed to protect the rights of people and their private property and not seize their personal belongings without having proof of a crime,” she said calling this bill “a violation of the Fourth Amendment,” which protects citizens from unreasonable searches and seizures without proof of wrongdoing.

Van Pelt referred to a recent Chicago case where police and their drug-sniffing dogs, responded to a tip of alleged drug trade. During their search, they found a gun, a digital scale and a small amount of marijuana tucked in a bag.

However, while no drugs were found in the homeowner’s van, police found a safe containing cash amounting to $271,080 that belonged to two brothers and six others living in that home.

Though neither the brothers nor the other occupants in the home were charged with a crime, government officials used the civil asset forfeiture law to keep the $271,080 arguing it must have been proceeds of drug trade. With the burden of proof on them, the brothers fought back and went to court. On March 17, the court ruled there wasn’t sufficient evidence.

But the court sent the case back to the trial court and a jury will ultimately decide if the money is tied to drug trafficking.

“That’s not fair,” Senator Van Pelt said. “You end up owing money to attorneys for a crime you did not commit. Its unfair, and it doesn’t make sense. It just does not add up.”

Van Pelt said she will look at what New Mexico did with their civil asset forfeiture law by banning it and Michigan’s tweaking its law that mandates police must meet the standard of evidence in these cases. Van Pelt wants the law to be fair and that police must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt before they seize personal property.

“I am going to see what can be done. We can’t introduce anything new right now, but we may do some amendments,” she said urging people to become advocates for change.

As an example, Van Pelt cited her bill, SB2370, which says before a child is charged with murder, they have to have an attorney upon questioning.

“A child 13 years old can be charged with murder without having an attorney present, but with my bill, if they want to question a child about a murder, they have to have an attorney present.  No more waiving their rights. We have had kids in prison who did not have their lawyers present when talking to police,” she said.

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