By Grant Zeigenfuse
Three senators on the Judicial Proceedings Committee — Michael Hough, Jamie Raskin and Chairman Bobby Zirkin– are sponsoring a comprehensive new bill (SB161) to fundamentally reform how and when law enforcement can seize money and other assets from people suspected of crimes.
They are also supporting an override of Gov. Larry Hogan’s veto of a less comprehensive law on civil asset forfeiture passed last year.
Civil asset forfeiture is a process by which the government is able to seize property and keep the proceeds without ever charging the victim with a crime. Hough, R-Frederick -Carroll, said: “I did not understand how the process worked when elected.”
After hearing testimony and talking to many victims, he now believes “The current situation in Maryland is completely wrong…. If you have never been convicted of anything, you should not have your property seized”.
Raskin, D-Montgomery, echoed these comments and noted that they had found common ground for support of these bills. Hough is a conservative Republican and Raskin is a liberal Democrat.
Raskin stated “I believe the state of the law today is blatantly unconstitutional.”
Originally to go after drug kingpins
Seizing assets in which the Feds share with the local police the proceeds from asset forfeiture was enacted in the 80’s to go after drug kingpins. But over the years the policy has been abused, the committee found.
Police around the country have a strong incentive to look for excuses to confiscate property, since the money often can go directly to their budget.
“I used to be part of the problem,” said Neil Franklin, a retired Maryland State Police major. “The policy is being abused at great lengths.”
Police get around forfeiture laws by giving the property to federal agents who are not bound by the same restrictions. The federal agents then give a share of the profits back to the police. This is called “equitable sharing.” It has been estimated that from 2000-2008 state law enforcement, working with the federal agents, received more than $50 million in forfeiture revenue.
SB528, passed last year but vetoed by the governor, would have greatly tightened the asset forfeiture laws. It established a minimum amount of money ($300) to trigger police seizure, and it could not be forfeited unless directly connected to the unlawful distribution of a controlled dangerous substance.
It also required the state to prove by a preponderance of evidence that the violation was committed with the owner’s actual knowledge. And it required law enforcement to provide written information to the owner about seized property within 30 days. And most importantly, it prohibits the transfer of seized property to the federal government except under certain conditions.
The vetoed bill basically says the government cannot seize your property without proving that it is associated with a crime. Currently, the burden of proof is on the individual – who might not be charged with anything.
Need a conviction to hold onto money, property
The new legislation, SB161, is a more comprehensive bill to fundamentally reform civilian asset forfeiture.
According to Nick Zaiac of the Maryland Public Policy Institute, the bill adds language to current state law so assets could be seized only if the property is claimed to be owned by the person convicted of illegal drug crimes and if the government proves the property’s connection to the crimes in court.
“We should have a conviction before we take someone’s property – It is just that simple,” Zaiac says.