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EDITORIAL: Legislature must pass civil forfeiture reforms

The political tug of war between state Senate and Assembly Republicans could kill one of the most important reform proposals of the 2015 Nevada Legislature and allow an abusive police practice to continue largely unchecked.

As introduced, Senate Bill 138 would have greatly limited the lawful theft of assets by Nevada police agencies under civil forfeiture laws. These statutes allow police to seize anything of value from anyone if they believe there is the slightest chance that the property was obtained or used in the commission of a crime. Incredibly, police can take money, cars, furniture, homes — anything — without making an arrest or writing so much as a parking citation, then use the proceeds to bolster their budgets.

And to get their property back, victims of this racket must prove it was obtained lawfully. In other words, seized property is presumed guilty until proved innocent. Citizens don’t merely forfeit their assets, they forfeit their due process rights and must initiate costly litigation to have their property returned.

SB138 would have required any forfeiture to be accompanied by a criminal conviction, plea bargain or other agreement. The legislation also switched the burden of proof to prosecutors to justify forfeiture from co-owners or associates of the accused, and it would have reduced the policing-for-profit incentive by directing forfeiture proceeds to the state general fund instead of law enforcement coffers.

But the Senate Judiciary Committee gutted the bill, amending every last reform out of it. What was left of SB138, which passed the Senate and was sent to the Assembly, belonged on a butcher’s floor: a requirement that police report their annual haul to the attorney general. Whoop-de-doo.

To its credit, the Assembly Judiciary Committee then amended some reforms back into the bill before passing it. Among them: Requiring police to file a forfeiture complaint in District Court; requiring the court to issue a stay on the forfeiture until a criminal prosecution is completed; and, if that prosecution results in the dismissal or acquittal of charges, requiring the return of seized property within seven business days. The amended version of the amended SB138 is awaiting a vote by full Assembly. If it passes, the bill heads back to the Senate.

Even stronger reforms should be a no-brainer for the Legislature. National awareness of civil forfeiture abuse has increased dramatically in recent years as the national media cover more cases. Last year, a Washington Post investigation determined that local, state and federal agencies have seized $2.5 billion in cash from almost 62,000 people since 2001 without warrants or indictments. One such case happened in Nevada in 2013, when a Humboldt County deputy took $50,000 in cash from a man he had pulled over for driving 78 mph in a 75 mph zone. No speeding ticket was issued. The next day, the sheriff’s office released a video with the deputy displaying the cash haul and bragging about how the money would “benefit Humboldt County with training and equipment.” The victim had to sue in federal court to get his money back.

It’s shocking to anyone with any understanding of our legal system that police can take and keep personal property without any provable link to a crime. Civil forfeiture laws, which have been upheld by courts, are a stain on our Constitution.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Greg Brower, R-Reno, and Assembly Judiciary Chairman Ira Hansen, R-Sparks, are feuding over other policies as well, most notably a bill to allow concealed weapons permit holders to carry on college campuses. (It should pass, too.) These bills could be taken hostage as part of the larger battle over Gov. Brian Sandoval’s $7.4 billion budget and the votes needed to pass the tax increases needed to fund it.

Nevada doesn’t need more victims of civil forfeiture, and police shouldn’t be allowed to continue operations that make officers appear above the law. Substantial reforms must be part of SB138, or it isn’t worth passing at all.

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