Of all the surprises the justice system holds for the uninitiated, none is perhaps greater than the concept of civil forfeiture, which gives law enforcement officials carte blanche to seize and retain property that they believe is connected to a crime -- no matter how tenuous this connection actually is.
Indeed, law enforcement in the majority of the states have the ability to hold onto property they believe is connected to illegal activity regardless of whether the person to whom it belongs was convicted, charged or even arrested. Further muddying the waters, of course, is the fact that law enforcement agencies actually get to keep a portion of the property forfeited.
As you might imagine, this practice has long been the target of withering criticism by advocacy groups like the American Civil Liberties Union, who argue that it does nothing more than monetize law enforcement, lining the pockets of police departments and state agencies at the expense of the citizenry.
Interestingly, several states have taken steps to curtail or even eliminate civil forfeiture altogether. Indeed, Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts signed just such a measure, LB 1106, a few weeks ago, effectively ending a practice that saw law enforcement agencies take in more than $3 million in forfeited funds under state law since 2011.
Specifically, LB 1106 mandates that in order for real estate, money, vehicles or firearms to be forfeited, a person must be charged and convicted of a crime involving illegal gambling, child pornography or illegal drugs.
In addition to mandating stricter reporting requirements for seizures and forfeitures, it also sets more firm guidelines for state law enforcement to participate in the federal equitable sharing program.
The equitable sharing program is a federal forfeiture program under which local departments and state agencies have the option of seizing property under the auspices of federal law, something that enables them to keep as much as 80 percent of the seized property. One report found that from 2000 to 2013, law enforcement agencies in the Cornhusker State amassed over $48 million through the equitable sharing program.
Under LB 1106, local departments and state agencies cannot transfer seized cash and property to federal hands if the amount of the property is under $25,000 (statistics showed that the majority of equitable sharing seizures were under this amount).
However, this monetary restriction doesn't apply if the person from whom the property was seized is "the subject of federal prosecution" and the seizure itself was physically carried out by a federal agent.
It will be interesting to see how things play out in Nebraska. In our next post, we'll discuss how lawmakers here in Florida have recently crafted their own response to the always thorny issue of civil forfeiture.
If you believe that law enforcement officials have unjustly seized your hard-earned assets, do not think that you are without options. At the Law Offices of Mark L. Horwitz, P.A, we have decades of experience handling civil forfeiture cases and are prepared to help.