Civil Asset Forfeiture Over the past three months, many of you responded to our TAKE ACTION on civil asset forfeiture reform in Illinois. We are delighted to report that HB 303 and SB Al, sponsored by Rep. Will Guzzardi (D-39th) and Sen. Don Harmon (D-39th) passed the Illinois Senate unanimously and the House with one dissenting vote, and now awaits Governor Rauner’s signature. Most importantly, the bill requires that the burden of proof rest with the government in cases where an individual’s property is seized when law enforcement claims it has been involved with illegal activity. Until now, property owners have – contrary to U.S. standards of justice – had to prove their innocence. The bill also requires police and prosecutors to collect data and report on seized property and the use of proceeds. It exempts small sums of cash and mere possession of small drug amounts from seizures, and it makes it easier for “innocent victims” to claim the return of their property. This is not a perfect bill. Proceeds from seizure still go to support the budgets of police and prosecutors, a clear conflict of interest. Six states, including Indiana, Missouri, and New Mexico, keep agencies from keeping forfeiture proceeds. But the Illinois legislation is an important step forward. We recognize the ACLU, Cabrini Legal Aid, and other advocates for their extraordinary work. Thank you for your support. Click for more information. Taxation and Regulation Vermont, Connecticut, and Rhode Island are poised to join the eight states that have already legalized marijuana for recreational use. CNDP staff has developed strong clergy support in each of these three. They are especially significant because anyone could become the first to take this step through legislative action rather than a ballot initiative. Procedurally, Vermont is the closest. In mid-May, the house and senate approved adult possession of small amounts of marijuana. After initially vetoing the bill, Governor Scott supported a compromise, including a commission to recommend a tax and regulation system. This bill awaits legislative action when the General Assembly reconvenes in January. Connecticut introduced a tax and regulate bill in March. While neither chamber voted, the draft budget forwarded by the Senate and House contains a $180 million revenue total from marijuana sales. The session ended without budget approval, but action, including marijuana legalization, could take place in the next few weeks. Rhode Island has been on the cusp of tax and regulation for the past two years. Advocates are confident of majority support in both the House and Senate and note that three out of five Rhode Islanders support ending prohibition. The key task is to convince leaders in both chambers that the time has come for a vote.
Did you think that under the law we are innocent until proven guilty? Not when it comes to civil asset forfeiture. Police are allowed to seize property they suspect is connected to a crime. Usually, they take cars. Cash and electronic equipment are also likely objects of seizure if police decide to search where victims live. The burden is on owners to court to get their property back. They are not given counsel. Since most of the defendants are very poor, they cannot afford their own. The instructions on where and when they can plead their case are confusing or non-existent. If they don’t act fast enough, their property is auctioned off and proceeds handed over to law enforcement. It is estimated that a significant majority of individuals whose process is seized in Cook County end up never even trying to prove that their property should be returned. This is not surprising (if painful to watch). Without procedures telling them what to do, the victims of property seizure simply give up.
It’s easy enough to read about civil asset forfeiture and be angry at a system that seizes property and keeps it until the owners prove they have not committed a crime. Last week we wanted to get a more personal, first-hand view, of how the process works. All proceedings for civil asset forfeiture in Cook County are held in Room 1707 of the Daley Center. Anyone can go. We sat in on a docket of cases. Four prosecutors from the Cook County State’s Attorney were present. No one represented the four defendants waiting to be called. All were African-American.
In November of 2015, the Washington Post reported that in the previous year law enforcement had taken more property from people – including cash, automobiles, and even homes – than burglars had stolen. Burglary losses amounted to $3.5 billion, while, shockingly, the net asset of police seizures amounted to $4.5 billion. (via The Institute for Justice) More disturbingly, this number reflected only federal statistics, and not seizures by state police and local law enforcement, data that in most cases is extremely difficult to obtain. Law enforcement utilizes a practice known as civil asset forfeiture to permanently confiscate property they perceive to be involved in criminal activity. This is done without requiring officers to prove the person or the property is guilty and/or connected to criminal activity. The process to reclaim one’s property in the event of seizure is legally complex, expensive, and time-sensitive, making the extreme majority of assets logistically impossible for most people to reclaim. Furthermore, law enforcement is inherently incentivized to persist the practice as all funds obtained through asset forfeiture are re-directed to the operating budgets of their respective departments.
Most people understand that when a person has profited from criminal activity, the government can take steps to deprive that person of the illicit profits. But few understand that, through a practice called civil asset forfeiture, law enforcement can permanently take property they believe to be involved in criminal activity without ever having to prove anyone guilty of a crime, or even file charges.
- Page 1 of 2