(as originally published in the Virginian-Pilot on April 15, 2015)
The "presumption of innocence" is a cornerstone of the American justice system. But for many Virginians, it's little more than American fiction.
Current law permits law enforcement to seize personal property based on the mere suspicion that an individual - or an item in question - has been involved in criminal activity. Flipping the old adage "innocent until proven guilty" on its head, a property owner - often never charged, let alone convicted of a crime - must prove the innocence of the property if he has any hope of getting it back.
The costs of this current system are really high for people across Virginia.
Between 2008 and 2014, law enforcement agencies in the commonwealth seized more than $57 million worth of property - everything from cars to cash to homes - through a practice known as civil asset forfeiture.
In many cases, property was seized and sold without the owner being convicted of a crime. Indeed, according to the Institute for Justice, Virginia's practices are among the worst in the nation and fail to include basic protections for property owners.
Taking someone's property and forfeiting it to the state before anyone has been convicted of a crime is a practice fundamentally out of step with the basic tenets of our justice system. Fortunately for Virginians, it's one that's within reach of finally being put in check.
Today, the Virginia House and Senate are expected to take an up-or-down vote on an amendment offered to Senate Bill 721 that would overhaul the practice and require a conviction or plea agreement in order to "forfeit" property. The proposed amendment is a major step toward protecting the property rights of innocent Virginians.
It's common-sense policy that has very strong support across the ideological spectrum.
Earlier this year, this same proposal, embodied in a bill introduced by Republican Del. Mark Cole, received overwhelming bipartisan support, with a 92 to 6 vote in the House.
Outside the commonwealth, support is just as strong.
There is a growing, national bipartisan consensus that the U.S. justice system is in dire need of meaningful reforms that will protect people's property and their right to due process.
The three of us, for example, may not all be working on criminal justice reform for the same reasons, but we are working together as partners in the Coalition for Public Safety to make our justice system more just, fair and effective.
Reforming civil asset forfeiture laws has certainly generated some unusual alliances because, despite where people fall on the political spectrum, they all know wrong when they see it.
In some instances, law enforcement agencies at all levels of government have used and abused civil asset forfeiture to seize money and property they suspect have been used in a crime, without any evidence to support such a claim.
Fortunately, more and more states are taking the necessary steps to address abuses - states like New Mexico, Georgia, Florida and Texas.
Just last week, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez signed comprehensive reforms to civil forfeiture practices that had gotten unanimous support from the state legislature.
This week, Virginia is closer than ever to becoming one of those states.
Virginia legislators can vote today to improve practices and procedures relating to civil asset forfeiture, and put the commonwealth at the edge of a nationwide movement where states have fixed their laws in order to treat citizens with greater fairness and due process.
Civil asset forfeiture is one symptom of a deeper problem in the United States' justice system. But with each and every step, bringing people together across ideological and party lines, we can begin fixing a system to be more fair, just, and effective.
One of those steps can be taken this week here in Virginia. It's past time to do what's right.
Matt Kibbe is president of FreedomWorks and author of "Don't Hurt People and Don't Take Their Stuff." Claire Guthrie Gastañaga is executive director of the ACLU of Virginia. Christine Leonard is executive director of the Coalition for Public Safety, which advocates reform of the criminal justice system.