New Hampshire legislature passes civil asset forfeiture reform

New Hampshire legislature passes civil asset forfeiture reform

The New Hampshire legislature has passed an overhaul of asset forfeiture laws to protect rights of innocent property owners; Illinois should do the same.

New Hampshire is the latest state to embrace reform to civil asset forfeiture, which often allows law enforcement to take private property even if the owner hasn’t been convicted of a crime. The push for reform in New Hampshire and other states raises the question of why Illinois, despite its own evidence of abuse, is still lagging behind.

The New Hampshire bill, Senate Bill 522, which was signed into law June 24, limits asset forfeiture to “after a criminal conviction,” once “the state has found by clear and convincing evidence that the property was derived from, or used in, the commission of a crime.” According to the Institute for Justice, New Hampshire is the eighth state, so far, to reform its forfeiture laws in 2016.

This is an important shift from the law as it stands today. Right now, New Hampshire only requires government to link seized property to an alleged crime by a preponderance of the evidence, a lower evidentiary standard. And if challenged in court, an innocent property owner bears the burden of proving he or she wasn’t involved in the criminal use of the property.

Much more is at stake in Illinois. While New Hampshire reportedly took in $1.15 million in state law forfeitures and $17 million in equitable sharing revenue since 1999, Illinois has taken $113 million under state law between 2009 and 2013 alone, and another $186 in from joint forfeitures with the Department of Justice between 2000 and 2013.

While more in assets are seized in Illinois, there’s even less accountability here than in New Hampshire. First, Illinois does not require that law enforcement publically report on how much it takes in for forfeitures, as is already required in New Hampshire. The only way to access this information is through a Freedom of Information Act request.

Additionally, anyone contesting a seizure in Illinois (except for houses and land) has to pay for that right. That person must put down a bond of either 10 percent of the value of the property or $100, whichever is greater. If the person challenging the forfeiture loses, he or she must give up the entire bond and pay the full cost of the forfeiture proceeding; but even if the person wins, he or she must still relinquish 10 percent of the bond, meaning a completely innocent owner of property that was forfeited will never be made whole. Even when a property owner wins, he or she still loses part of the property – and is still responsible for his or her own legal costs.

In one especially egregious example of abuse, police took the car of Judy Wiese, a 70-year-old Moline, Ill., woman, for a crime she didn’t commit. Wiese’s grandson was arrested for driving her vehicle on a suspended license. Instead of returning the car to its rightful owner, however, police decided to keep it for over five months – during which Wiese missed therapy appointments for her broken arm and struggled to get rides to the grocery store. Her vehicle was only returned to her after Larry Vandersnick, a former State’s attorney, decided to represent her pro bono and helped her get her property back.

Illinois needs to rein in the abuses inherent in civil asset forfeiture. Mandating that law enforcement publicly report on how it acquires and uses forfeited funds is a step forward, but it is not enough. Owners of seized property should not be required to pay a bond for the right to challenge the forfeiture of their property, nor should they be required to pay the costs of the litigation if they lose. And no one should face the prospect of having his or her property taken without being charged and convicted of a crime.

Property rights are too important to allow the government to routinely violate them with little oversight or accountability. Illinoisans should follow New Hampshire and demand the General Assembly put a stop to this.

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