Will the Terrorists Win? Two State Bills to Counter Gang Violence Threaten Civil Liberties, ACLU Says.

By Josh Cohen January 14, 2010

The House Judiciary Committee held public hearings on two “criminal street gang activity” bills sponsored by Yakima County Rep. Norm Johnson (R-14).  Both bills raise questions about civil liberties and property rights, prompting dissenting testimony from Shankar Narayan, ACLU of Washington Legislative Director.

HB 2413 would allow law enforcement agents to seize private property that’s been used to facilitate criminal gang activity.  The seized property could be retained for use by the agencies or sold with 90 percent of revenues going to police departments. The burden of proving innocence would fall on property owners. If they are able to prove innocence they get their property back (say, their house) and a portion of their legal fees is compensated. Law enforcement officers, Yakima county citizens, and law enforcement lobbyists all testified in support of the bill.

Sunnyside Chief of Police Ed Radder said that this bill will be effective in hurting gangs financially.
“The way you win wars is not by killing people, but by cutting off their supply line,” Radder said.

Tammy Masters, a Yakima county mother, lost her son in 2008 when he was shot and killed by gang members. She testified in support of the bill, urging the legislators to give police more tools to fight gang crime.

In his lone testimony opposing the bill, the ACLU’s Narayan agreed that gang violence is a pressing issue, but that this bill carries risks of unintended consequences for innocent property owners. The ACLU wants the bill voted down, but says at the very least needs a clause for due process added.

“This bill would allow personal property to be seized without charge, without due process, and without cause,” said Narayan.

The second bill, HB 2414, was similar to the first—as were the voices testifying for and against. It would allow citizens to file complaints to police reporting houses or apartments in their neighborhood being used for criminal gang activity. The properties would be deemed “nuisances” and the burden of proving innocence would again fall on the property owner. If the owners were unable to prove innocence their property would be seized. According to Narayan, this bill looks at property owners as “guilty until proven innocent.”
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