Ohio Legislature Passes Asset Forfeiture Reform Bill That Removes Lots Of Bad Incentives
from the fewer-residents-to-fear-for-their-property dept
Another state legislature has decided it's time to start scaling back civil asset forfeiture. Ohio's Senate is the latest to pass a bill targeting the worst excesses of property seizures, as Reason's CJ Ciaramella reports.
The bill passed both the Ohio senate and house by wide margins, despite opposition from law enforcement groups. If it is signed by Ohio Gov. John Kasich, Ohio will join 17 other states in recent years that has overhauled their civil asset forfeiture laws in response to media investigations and reports from civil liberties groups that revealed shocking numbers of people who've had their cash, cars, and even homes seized.
The bill [PDF] started out stronger -- forbidding the forfeiture of property without a conviction -- but has been watered down a bit [changes can be seen here] in response to law enforcement opposition. What remains is a better law than most, one that removes a lot of the perverse incentives.
Under the Ohio bill prosecutors will be required to charge citizens with certain crimes in order to forfeit their property, although in some instances prosecutors may still do so without filing any charges, according to the Columbus Dispatch. It also switches the burden of proof from the defendant to the government to show why property is connected to a crime and bars civil forfeiture for amounts under $15,000.
While it's still frustrating to see legislators automatically assume that "more $$$ = guilty $$$," this burden shift will actually deter many questionable seizures. Law enforcement agencies may obtain hundreds of thousands of dollars through forfeiture every year, but the highest percentage of that money comes from lowball seizures that are far more questionable.
Another addition that should curb abuse is the higher bar set for federal partnership. It now sits at $100,000, meaning law enforcement won't be able to use the federal escape valve to route around the new restrictions.
And, of course, those who benefited the most from asset forfeiture programs are still griping about the bill by delivering patently false statements.
Law enforcement organizations, such as the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association, still oppose the bill, saying there are already plenty of due process protections for property owners built into the law.
When the state takes action against property, the property -- which can't represent itself -- is named as the defendant. While the property's owners are notified of the intended forfeiture, the system is designed from the ground up to deter challenges. In the case of smaller seizures, the cost of fighting for the return of the property can easily cost more than the seized property's value. The burden of proof is placed on those whose property was seized, and the previous lack of a "basement" for burden-shifting means agencies were comfortable making dozens of small seizures, knowing very few people would attempt to fight the forfeiture.
These are good changes. They could have been better, but the law enforcement lobby -- combined with politicians' natural fear of looking "soft" on crime -- tends to result in the compromises seen here. But it's far, far better than ignoring the issue and allowing law enforcement to continue indulging in its perverted incentives.