By Payton Alexander
Maine is poised to make it a lot harder for police to seize your property without charging you with a crime, as lawmakers introduced a bill this month to reform the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws. With civil asset forfeiture, police can seize cash, vehicles and even homes, provided only that the property is suspected of being used in a crime. Often, no charges or convictions are required. Senator Eric Brakey, along with a bipartisan group of cosponsors, introduced Senate Bill 888 March 7, which would require a criminal conviction before any property is seized, as well as close a loophole that allows local law enforcement to skirt state law by working with the federal government.
“Barring state and local law enforcement agencies from passing off cases to the feds is particularly important,” writes Mark Maharrey for the Tenth Amendment Center. “In several states with strict asset forfeiture laws, prosecutors have done just that. By placing the case under federal jurisdiction, law enforcement can bypass the need for a conviction under state law and collect up to 80 percent of the proceeds from forfeited assets via the federal Equitable Sharing Program.”
Currently, police in Maine do not have the right to keep the proceeds of forfeitures, which reduces the perverse incentive to ‘police for profit’ that plagues departments in other states. However, the state has a low bar to forfeit property, does not require a conviction and provides limited protections for innocent third-party property owners.
According to the Institute for Justice, even though Maine requires police departments to maintain an inventory of the property they seize, reports need not be filed with a centralized agency or published online, making it harder for the public to hold them accountable. Looking at just Maine Drug Enforcement Agency reports alone, law enforcement in the Pine Tree State seized more than $1.5 million in cash from 2009 to 2013. Unfortunately, no value is reported for non-cash assets that were seized and then auctioned or sold.
Civil asset forfeiture is a national problem, and a big one. In 2014, for the first time in recorded history, police in the United States seized more money and property through civil asset forfeiture than all burglars and thieves combined. Making matters worse, civil asset forfeiture has been known to disproportionately impact African Americans and Latinos, creating significant barriers to opportunity in their communities. According to a study in Oklahoma, nearly two thirds of seizures come from racial minorities, representing a significant disparity.
If S.B. 888 passes the state legislature, police in Maine would no longer be able to seize property without convicting the owner of a crime, effectively ending the practice of civil asset forfeiture in favor of criminal asset forfeiture. The bill is scheduled for a hearing March 31.
Payton Alexander is a policy analyst at Americans for Prosperity. Follow him on Twitter @AlexanderPayton