Forfeiture of property should be tied to a conviction

A couple of weeks ago we editorially bemoaned the fact that no one had introduced a bill in the state Legislature to restrict the practice of law enforcement agencies seizing private property — homes, cars, cash and such — under the presumption it is the product of criminal activity, but without ever having to actually go through the due process of convicting someone of a crime — a process called civil asset forfeiture.

That same week state Sen. Don Gustavson of Spark filed Senate Bill 358 that would require proof of a criminal conviction, a plea agreement or an agreement by the parties concerned before property could be forfeited.

The bill is almost identical to a bill Gustavson and James Settelmeyer of Minden sponsored during the 2015 legislative session. By the time that bill came out the legislative sausage grinder it merely required police agencies to report their confiscations to the state. As the law currently reads, property may be confiscated and kept or sold without the property’s owner ever being convicted or even charged with a criminal offense.

Though the Fifth Amendment provides: “No person shall be … deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law …” police agencies in cooperation with federal law enforcement have for years coerced people into surrendering assets that become the property of the agency — a perverse incentive indeed.

Gustavson’s bill “provides that property is subject to forfeiture only if the underlying crime provides for such forfeiture, and there is: (1) proof of a criminal conviction; (2) a plea agreement; or (3) an agreement by the parties.” It also “requires the State to establish that seized property is forfeitable by clear and convincing evidence.”

Gustavson testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee this past week, “Under current civil forfeiture laws, law enforcement can seize your cash or other property, sell and then use most of the proceeds however they see fit, even though you are never arrested or even charged with a crime. Passage of Senate Bill 358 does not limit law enforcement’s ability to combat drug cartels and other criminal activity. The intent of this legislation is to protect the innocent individual’s liberty and property right and to keep law abiding citizens from becoming entangled in the process that results in their rights being trampled. An innocent tourist driving back to Utah after winning a $1,000 jackpot at a local casino can have his money confiscated though he or she has not been accused of any crime.”

Lee McGrath, legislative counsel for the Institute for Justice, which has advocated civil asset forfeiture law reform for years, also testified. He said law enforcement has the power to take the fruits of criminal activity but that it should be done via criminal forfeiture rather than civil forfeiture.

“The appropriate process that is due is criminal forfeiture,” McGrath said. “It makes sense to charge, arrest and convict the suspect of a crime. If convicted in the same courtroom, the same judge can turn to the question, and it should be an easy question, of whether the cash, whether the vehicle are the proceeds and the instruments of a crime.”

The attorney general’s office, various law enforcement officials and district attorneys testified against the bill, saying the current system is not abused, though others testified to the contrary.

There is a case pending in the courts in which Texas police seized $200,000 in cash, claiming it was the profits of illegal drug trade, though the owners said it was from a the sale of a house. The bill of sale was with the cash. No one was ever convicted of any crime and the police still have the money.

Justice Clarence Thomas wrote a six-page commentary on the Texas case sighting the evils of civil asset forfeiture, “These forfeiture operations frequently target the poor and other groups least able to defend their interests in forfeiture proceedings. … Perversely, these same groups are often the most burdened by forfeiture. They are more likely to use cash than alternative forms of payment, like credit cards, which may be less susceptible to forfeiture. And they are more likely to suffer in their daily lives while they litigate for the return of a critical item of property, such as a car or a home.”

Nevada has its own record of suspect civil asset forfeiture cases. Over a two-year period Humboldt County deputies seized $180,000 in cash from motorists.

Some states have passed laws similar to the one being advocated by Gustavson to curb the extortionate practice by police by requiring an actual criminal conviction before assets may be taken. This bill is needed to protect citizens and assure due process. — TM

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