Time to reform forfeiture law

Two court rulings have done something the Indiana General Assembly should have taken care of: putting some restrictions on forfeiture, the police seizure of an individual’s property or possessions even though no crime may have been proved or even charged.

U.S. District Chief Judge Jane Magnus-Stinson partially has halted the seizure of vehicles in drug cases and related crimes in the state. She says state law violates due process because it doesn’t allow individuals to challenge a forfeiture before property is seized.

And the state Court of Appeals has also ruled that an alert from a drug-sniffing dog isn’t enough evidence to seize cash that may be tied to drug trafficking. Judge John Baker says a positive alert from a drug dog isn’t enough to tie the money to illegal activity because studies show that up to 90 percent of U.S. currency has drug residue.

In theory, forfeiture can be a valuable crime-fighting tool. If a crime has been proved, seizing of the fruits of that crime puts other criminals on notice and also provides more funding for criminal justice. But in practice, the fact that law enforcement agencies get to keep revenue generated by forfeitures they initiate gives them incentive to target people based on the assets they own rather than the threat they pose.

In fact, forfeiture “has become a tool for unscrupulous law enforcement officials, acting without due process, to profit by destroying the livelihood of innocent individuals, many of whom never recover the lawful assets taken from them.” That’s part of the platform of the Republican Party.

But Attorney General Jeff Sessions might have missed part of the platform, since he has issued a directive putting even more emphasis on forfeiture, which he calls a key tool that helps law enforcement “defund organized crime, take back ill-gotten gains and prevent new crimes from being committed, and it weakens the criminals and the cartels.”

Two dozen states and the District of Columbia have reformed their forfeiture laws since 2014. The changes include mandating data collection and reporting, strengthening standards of proof and requiring a criminal conviction before some or all forfeitures.

Multiple forfeiture reform bills failed to advance through the Indiana General Assembly this past session. But the issue is being considered by the Interim Study Committee on Courts and the Judiciary, so let’s hope our legislators step up.

This was distributed by Hoosier State Press Association. Send comments to [email protected].