Lawmaker pushes bill to take assets before conviction

A lawmaker is proposing an asset confiscation law for Costa Rica. This is the legal concept that allows officials to take property before an individual has been charged with a crime.

Then it is up to the individual to prove that he or she obtained the property legally. Otherwise, the government keeps the property, which could be money, real estate or vehicles.

A similar law has seen widespread abuse in other countries. In some cases police forces profit by obtaining the proceeds of the confiscated property.

The lawmaker is Antonio Álvarez Desanti of the Partido Liberación Nacional, who presented the bill to his colleagues last week. However, the text of the bill is not yet in the data base of the Asamblea Legislative.

Álvarez is characterizing the measure as another tool to fight crime. It is bill No. 19.571. It is called the  Ley Sobre Extinción de Dominio, which basically means confiscation of assets.

Police officers is Costa Rica already confiscate quantities of cash they may find in traffic stops with the assumption that such money is the result of illegal earnings. A money laundering charge follows. This bill would seem to expand that practice to other types of property.

A summary released Monday by the party noted that the confiscation does not judge an individual for illegal activities but seeks to learn the origin of the property.

In the United States there have been many scandals when law officers confiscated farms and homes because a teenage son was growing marijuana, frequently without the knowledge of parents, who owned the property.

In one  Colorado community, police would set up repeated stings involving a small quantity of marijuana in commercial center parking lots to confiscate the vehicle of a drug purchaser. The police would use the funds generated to enhance the department budget and sometimes provide entertainment. Frequently there would be no charges.

The legal case then becomes one of the state against the property, and the owner intervenes as a third party seeking to prove the legitimacy of the goods.

The party summary noted that this type of  confiscation has been approved by the U.N. Office against Drugs and other international agencies.

Goods financed by drug operations are confiscated already, but law enforcement must wait until a conviction is achieved in court. Under the proposed law, the confiscation can be immediate, and there many never be a charge lodged against the owner.

The summary describes this proposed law as a tool against organized crime, but similar laws elsewhere have resulted in confiscation of property for relatively minor offenses.

The summary of the bill describes an investigation by prosecutors and judicial agents to determine if there are causes to confiscate property. Finding such evidence, the case is presented to  judge who would emit an order of confiscation.

There does not seem to be any provision for notifying the owners of the goods until they are confiscated.

The summary said that the fourth step in the process is appeal, presumably by the owner who has been stripped of the property.

Legal criticisms elsewhere say that the process ignores the presumption of innocence and that many confiscations are disproportional.

Last week the Ministerio de Hacienda’s proposal to allow tax investigators to confiscate bank accounts and even entire businesses without a court order became known. This generated plenty of criticism.

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