Nebraska Just Abolished Civil Forfeiture, Now Requires A Criminal Conviction To Take Property

April 24, 2016 in News, Video by D


Most states in America let police take and keep your stuff without convicting you of a crime.

These states fully allow what’s known as “civil forfeiture”: Police officers can seize someone’s property without proving the person was guilty of a crime; they just need probable cause to believe the assets are being used as part of criminal activity, typically drug trafficking.

Police can then absorb the value of this property — be it cash, cars, guns, or something else — as profit, either through state programs or under a federal program known as Equitable Sharing, which lets local and state police get up to 80 percent of the value of what they seize as money for their departments.

So police not only can seize people’s property without proving involvement in a crime, but they have a financial incentive to do so. It’s the latter that state restrictions on civil forfeiture attempt to limit: Police should still be able to seize property as evidence.

But the restrictions in some states, such as California and New Mexico, make it so they can’t keep that property without a criminal conviction under many circumstances, under state law. And, therefore, they won’t be able to take people’s property as easily for personal profit.

The limits on civil forfeiture vary from state to state — but federal law leaves a loophole

A minority of states limit most or all forfeiture cases in different ways.

For example, in New Mexico and North Carolina, a court must convict the suspect of a crime before the same judge or jury can consider whether seized property can be absorbed by the state. In Minnesota and Montana, meanwhile, a suspect must be convicted of a crime in court before the seized property can be absorbed by the state through separate litigation in civil court. And in California, the state requires a conviction for forfeiture — but only to financial seizures worth up to $25,000; a boat, airplane, or vehicle; and any real estate.

These limitations don’t entirely stop police from seizing someone’s property — cops can still do that with probable cause alone, and hold the property as evidence for trial.

But the government won’t be able to absorb the property and its proceeds without convicting the suspect of a crime. This limits police seizures in two ways: It forces cops to show the suspect was actually involved in a crime after the property is seized, and it can deter future unfounded seizures for profit since police know they’ll need to prove a crime.

But local and state cops in these states can still use federal law for civil forfeiture. Lee McGrath, legislative counsel for the Institute for Justice, a national nonprofit that opposes civil forfeiture, said that police in most states with restrictions on civil forfeiture can still work with federal law enforcement officials to take people’s property without charging them with a crime. Only New Mexico and Nebraska limit local and state police departments’ ability to work with the federal government in forfeiture cases.

Some state laws also don’t let police agencies absorb proceeds from forfeitures into their own budgets, instead directing the funds to the general budget. This helps remove the personal financial incentive police have to take and keep someone’s property.

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