Virginia Lawmakers Attempting To Reform State's Asset Forfeiture Debacle By Pushing For A Conviction Requirement
from the but-more-work-is-still-needed dept
The Institute for Justice’s 2010 report “Policing for Profit” listed Virginia as one of the worst five states in the nation in terms of forfeiture abuse. Pushing the state towards its Bottom Five finish was this perverted incentive: 100% of the proceeds from civil asset forfeiture were retained by the law enforcement agency performing the seizure. And, like a majority of states, Virginia also perverted the justice system, deeming the property “guilty” and transferring the burden of proof to those whose assets were seized.
Now that civil asset forfeiture has gone mainstream, receiving coverage from major press outlets, legislators are having a harder time ignoring opponents of these “legalized theft” programs. In response, Virginia’s lawmakers are trying to drag the state out of its forfeiture morass.
Last week the Virginia House of Delegates overwhelmingly approved a bill that would effectively raise the burden of proof for civil forfeitures by forcing the government to return seized property unless it can obtain a criminal conviction. The bill, introduced by Del. Mark Cole (R-Spotsylvania) and Del. Scott Surovell (D-Mount Vernon), passed by a vote of 92 to 6 and is now being considered by the state Senate.
This fixes one major issue with many civil asset forfeiture programs. Virginia’s laws only demanded a “preponderance of the evidence,” something that sounds like a lot but in reality is far lower than establishing guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” If the latter edges towards a theoretical 75% assurance of guilt, the percentage for asset forfeiture approaches a coin flip: 51%. Now, there needs to be a conviction before the agency can keep the seized property.
But there are also problems left unaddressed by this proposal.
That conviction does not have to involve the owner, however. Someone who uses an asset (a car or a home, say) in connection with a crime could be convicted, whereupon the asset would be forfeited, even if it belonged to someone else. Once a “substantial connection” between an asset and a crime is established, Virginia puts the burden on innocent owners to prove their innocence, and this bill does not change that.
The law also doesn’t change the allocation of seized funds. 100% is still awarded to the agency performing the seizure with 10% of that allocated for “promoting law enforcement activities.” The law also leaves the DOJ loophole open, allowing agencies to route seizures through the feds in order to dodge restrictions placed on them by local laws.
The introduction of a criminal conviction requirement should be the minimum standard any agency with these powers should have to meet. Without it, you get the sort of abuse perpetrated by Virginia’s law enforcement, which has seized nearly $3 million/year in vehicles for the last 18 years and approximately $5 million in cash/year over the last decade. Contrary to the oft-stated defense that these programs are necessary to cripple powerful drug lords and multimillion dollar fraudsters, more than half the cash seized from 2001-2006 fell in the $614-1,288 range and the average worth of vehicles seized has hovered at about $6,000.
Law enforcement agencies won’t be happy with the new requirement, as it’s certain to result in a lower take. According to Institute of Justice statistics, the total amount seized by the state’s agencies spiked in 2007, jumping from about $4 million a year to over $25 million a year. And there’s been no sign of slowdown since.
It’s not a complete fix, but it does at least attack the biggest problem inherent to these programs: the lack of a conviction requirement. Somehow, proponents of asset forfeiture feel there’s still some unshattered logic remaining when they contradictorily deem certain property guilty, but somehow can’t amass enough evidence to charge its former owners with anything.