Some odd news out of Massachussetts. Legislators and law enforcement are teaming up to push legislation that would give agencies permission to seize and sell property belonging to people convicted of sexual crimes against children.
A local sheriff and state representative are awaiting the review of a bill that would allow prosecutors at the conclusion of a child-exploitation case to seize and sell assets used by predators, using the proceeds for victim rehabilitation and therapy, education programs for children, or bringing the funds back into law enforcement.
Middlesex Sheriff Peter Koutoujian and Rep. James Arciero testified Tuesday before the Joint Committee on the Judiciary on the House bill. They are waiting for a favorable recommendation to move the bill forward.
"We feel that it's important to make sure that we have a zero tolerance when it comes to protecting our children," said Arciero, a Westford Democrat.
The bill would allow the court to seize and sell items, excluding hard drives, that are used to entice minors or to produce or disseminate child-pornography crimes. The proceeds of the sales would fund programs for Internet safety education, victim rehabilitation and therapy, and the purchase of technical equipment for law-enforcement agencies.
On one hand, what's being discussed here isn't the far more nefarious civil asset forfeiture
, in which property is deemed "guilty" and seized without corresponding convictions. This would be criminal
asset forfeiture, which can only move forward once the defendant is convicted.
The resulting funds would be narrowly dispersed, with some going to participating agencies but the bulk of it directly to the special investigative units that handle these crimes.
But there are some concerning aspects to it, not the least of which is the use of the phrase "zero tolerance," which tends to shut down all further critical thinking by those uttering it. For one, the list of items that can be seized is fairly broad. Even though the article notes hard drives will not be permitted to be sold, the statements issued don't specify whether other
storage media will be put on the "not for resale" list. In fact, it appears other devices (cameras, cellphones) that formerly stored illegal material will
be sold to the general public.
In front of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, Koutoujian testified, "Massachusetts authorities can already obtain warrants and seize cameras, computers, cellphones, vehicles used by perpetrators in child pornography and enticement cases. But this legislation would allow prosecutors at the conviction of the case, with the court's permission, to dispose of the seized property and generate funds that could be put into three narrowly tailored areas."
While officials claim the devices will be "wiped" before resale, it's not difficult to imagine this eventually leading to someone ending up with an auctioned item that still contains illicit material. That's just human nature. Sooner or later, the wipe job won't be done as well as it should have been. Or at all. That alone is problematic.
Further problems present themselves in the expanded list of seizable/sellable items. Law enforcement will also take vehicles "involved" in "enticement." A narrow reading would only allow the seizure of a vehicle that has been used in the commission of the crime. But the bill doesn't lend itself to a narrow reading. It would also permit the seizure of property in "dissemination" cases, which means little more than using a torrent service to obtain the illegal material. Downloads and uploads are intertwined, making every illicit file sharer a participant in "dissemination" of child porn, even if that person did not create the images being trafficked or specifically intend to distribute them further.
So, this bill could be used to seize cars from people who've never molested a child, much less used their car to "entice" a child into participating in illegal sexual activity.
The bill also provides for the seizure of houses and bank accounts, using this same tenuous connection. While it is not uncommon for some forms of property to be seized as a means of providing retribution to victims of criminal acts, it's not always applied to criminals who have only viewed child pornography. Restitution orders have been granted to those whose pictures have been distributed, but this hasn't been explicitly tied to the forfeiture of assets.
The bill would effectively cut victims out of the loop, routing seized assets to the agencies participating in the arrest and prosecution. The only caveat that may allow for victim restitution is the fact that the agency performing the seizure needs to seek the court's permission before selling seized items and distributing funds.
The bill does provide a safety valve for families who are unaware of a family member's criminal behavior, hopefully preventing them from losing their houses or vehicles because of another person's activities. But it's very limited. Law enforcement wouldn't be able to seize these assets without it being shown that other owners of these items were aware (or should have been aware) of the defendant's behavior. But it doesn't say where the burden of proof lies, suggesting it might be wrapped up in the petition for property return process, which would place it on the other owners of the property, rather than on the state. (Other homeowners can also ask the court for a "homesteading" exception to prevent residences from being seized, which is probably a better route than challenging the seizure head-on. But this exception doesn't apply to other seized property like vehicles or bank accounts.)
It's also limited solely to owners, so spouses/children/relatives who aren't listed on titles can't challenge the seizure. It also sets a very low bar
for government agencies when it comes to "proving" other property owners were "aware" of illegal behavior.
Proof that the conveyance or real property was used to facilitate the unlawful dissemination of visual material or the enticement of a child under the age of 16 on 3 or more different dates shall be prima facie evidence that the conveyance or real property was used in and for the business of unlawfully disseminating such visual material or enticing a child under the age of 16.
Houses are where computers are almost always found and one resident torrenting child porn on three different dates is apparently all it will take for state agencies to render unaware family members homeless.
While I can appreciate the Sheriff's complaint that funds seized are often routed towards the expensive upkeep of more glamorous drug interdiction units, SWAT teams and "task forces," this proposal still has a lot of flaws that need to be addressed. The narrow set of criminal acts it applies to, along with the conviction requirement, limits the potential abuse. But adding vehicles and houses to the list of seizable goods is problematic, especially when the underlying crime may be nothing more than possession of illicit images and the use of file sharing software.
Unfortunately, none of these questionable elements can fully be explored until the law has gone into effect. The bill still needs work, especially in terms of determining other property owners' culpability. Because, seriously, something happening three times in the same location is somehow "proof" that other property owners were aware of criminal activity -- criminal activity that is hidden from everyone
because it's morally unacceptable everywhere