By editorial board • 

We can’t let crime pay for perpetrators

Property rights are among the most cherished of all rights in America, and several constitutional provisions serve to protect them. Foremost among the safeguards is the Fifth Amendment, which forbids depriving people of “life, liberty and property without due process of law,” putting private property to public use “without just compensation,” and putting people in jeopardy twice for the same offense.

However, that has not prevented local, state and federal agencies from pursuing civil forfeiture of property deemed to have been acquired through criminal activity. And such a case is currently stirring controversy locally — Yamhill County’s court-authorized seizure of the $350,000 home of a convicted drug dealer.

All things considered, it seems to us the county acted prudently and appropriately.

History suggests civil forfeiture was subject to serious abuse in Oregon between 1989, when House Bill 2282 opened the floodgates, and 2006, when Measure 3 survived a six-year legal battle to close them again. A compromise was struck in 2008 with the passage of Measure 53 — by 550 votes out of 1.17 million — and it has held sway since.

The national picture is similar.

Civil forfeiture had little use until 1984, when Ronald Reagan signed the Comprehensive Crime Control Act. It made a small but enormously consequential change — funneling a large share of the proceeds to the law enforcement agencies bringing the cases.

The states quickly followed suit. But in recent years, opposition has increasingly served to curb excesses.

Oregon’s HB 2282 required only that a law enforcement agency establish probable cause that the property either was instrumental to the crime or was acquired through proceeds. The target need not be actually charged, let alone convicted.

Measure 53 not only requires conviction of a crime, but increases the standard for forfeiture action from probable cause — essentially more likely than not — to clear and convincing evidence established to the satisfaction of a jury.

Local forfeiture subject Sheryl Sublet was caught with eight pounds of methamphetamine. Its wholesale value could easily top $100,000 and its street value $350,000.

The county accused Sublet of running a major drug operation, and using it to purchase her home and make her living. It offered her two-thirds of the home-sale proceeds if she dropped her forfeiture challenge, but she chose to roll the dice.

She’s now serving six years in prison on two convictions for delivery of meth and one of felon in possession of a firearm.

Her lawyer termed the seizure “just a money grab so they can go buy another airplane, another little gadget to go investigate these cases.” But it appears to us more like a justifiable attempt to ensure crime doesn’t pay.


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