Some States Are Pursuing Civil Forfeiture Reforms

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As proceeds from civil forfeiture have swelled, so has the controversy surrounding the practice. A number of states are considering changes, from creating tracking systems that promote transparency to effectively banning forfeitures without a criminal conviction, Stateline reports. In many states, police need only to establish probable cause in order to seize property. During the judicial process, civil charges are brought against the property itself, which means the owner has no guarantee of legal representation in court. Costly attorneys’ fees can easily exceed the value of the seized property. A majority of states require forfeited property to be connected to criminal activity by a preponderance of evidence — a low bar in the civil court system.

Advocacy groups from the left-leaning American Civil Liberties Union to the libertarian Institute for Justice argue that property owners who face civil forfeiture suits are denied one of their most basic rights: the presumption of innocence until proven guilty. Last month, Gov. John Kasich of Ohio signed a measure barring forfeitures under $15,000 without a criminal conviction. Between 2010 and 2012, proceeds from civil forfeiture in Ohio totaled nearly $26 million. Most forfeitures fall well below the $15,000 threshold. A review of forfeitures in 10 states by the Institute for Justice found that the median value of forfeited property ranged from about $450 in Minnesota to $2,050 in Utah. The requirement of a criminal conviction affords property owners greater protections when their property is seized, such as the right to an attorney and a higher burden of proof — “beyond a reasonable doubt” — than in civil suits. A proposed Texas bill would require a criminal conviction in forfeiture cases, but the proposal faces a tough road ahead. Recent attempts to reform civil forfeiture in Texas have failed.


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