Rauner signs civil asset forfeiture reform into law

Rauner signs civil asset forfeiture reform into law

The new law will transfer the burden of proof to law enforcement in forfeiture proceedings.

In a Sept. 19 signing ceremony alongside criminal justice reform advocates from the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois, Illinois Policy Institute and others, Gov. Bruce Rauner signed historic civil asset forfeiture reform into law.

Civil asset forfeiture is a controversial practice wherein police can seize property suspected of having been connected to a crime without obtaining a criminal conviction against the owner. The new law will reform this practice in Illinois through several provisions that enhance protections for property owners and impose new restrictions on government seeking to retain seized property.

House Bill 303 passed with bipartisan support in both chambers of the General Assembly. The bill passed 100-1 in the Illinois House of Representatives, and in the Illinois Senate, the bill passed without a single “no” vote.

HB 303 transfers the burden of proof to the government to show it is entitled to take the property, instead of requiring the property owner to prove that he or she is entitled to keep it. The new law forces local and state authorities to show by a preponderance of the evidence that the property in question is subject to forfeiture.

The new law will also protect property owners from having to pay “cost bonds” in order to get their cases before a judge. Under the previous system, some Illinois laws forced property owners to pay 10 percent of their confiscated property’s value just to have their cases heard. Even if a property owner won the case, the law allowed the circuit court clerk to keep 10 percent of the bond value to cover costs.

HB 303 also requires the government to do more to ensure that property owners receive notice of the forfeiture proceedings and understand the steps they must take to argue for the return of their property.

The legislation further provides for new data collection around seizures of property by police departments and forfeitures by prosecutors around the state, which will be reported to the Illinois State Police and published on the agency’s website.

Supporters of civil asset forfeiture include various law enforcement groups and police unions, including the National Sheriffs’ Association and the Fraternal Order of Police, which claim the practice helps fight crime.

There’s no question that civil asset forfeiture has proved lucrative for federal, state and local law enforcement across the country, and Illinois is no exception. Since 2005, federal authorities have taken $404 million through asset forfeiture in Illinois, while state and local authorities have seized $319 million worth of property.

But when it comes to civil asset forfeiture, there’s evidence that innocent people often get caught in authorities’ crosshairs. A report from the Institute for Justice shows that 87 percent of asset forfeitures by the Department of Justice between 1997 and 2013 were civil, not criminal, meaning that in most cases authorities took property from people who hadn’t even been convicted of a crime.

There’s also evidence Illinoisans are against civil asset forfeiture. A May 2016 poll of Illinois registered voters commissioned by the Illinois Policy Institute showed 89 percent of respondents opposed property seizures without a criminal conviction.

Civil asset forfeiture is an inherently flawed system that lends itself to abuse, and creates bad incentives for law enforcement. While the new law does not ban the practice, it does give Illinoisans more protection.

The reform bill Rauner signed into law differs from House Bill 689, a previous iteration of civil asset forfeiture reform. HB 689 would have required a criminal conviction for any asset forfeiture, and would have changed the way the proceeds from asset forfeiture are distributed, minimizing financial incentives for law enforcement agencies to take property.

While there is more work to be done to eliminate civil asset forfeiture in Illinois, the signing of HB 303 marks an important win for criminal justice reform in the Land of Lincoln, and a major victory for the principle “innocent until proven guilty.”

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