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EDITORIAL: Federal, state forfeiture proposals deserve support

Congress again will consider legislation to rein in civil forfeiture abuses. Nevada’s delegation should get on board.

Meanwhile, Assembly Bill 350 remains alive in Carson City. It improves transparency regarding the forfeiture operations of state law enforcement agencies. Lawmakers should send the bill to the governor.

In March, Rep. Tim Walberg, a Republican from Michigan, and Rep. Jamie Raskin, a Maryland Democrat, introduced the FAIR Act, which they describe as a “comprehensive reform to our nation’s civil asset forfeiture laws.”

Under such statutes, law enforcement may seize homes, cars, cash and other valuables that are supposedly linked to criminal activity from owners who may never be charged with — let alone convicted of — wrongdoing. Innocent owners face an expensive and arduous process if they contest such actions.

These laws were originally intended to separate crime kingpins and drug lords from their ill-gotten gains. But they have been increasingly used against mid- or low-level suspects, particularly in minority communities. In addition, law enforcement agencies are often allowed to pocket all or most of the proceeds from forfeited assets, creating obvious incentives for abuse.

The FAIR Act raises the level of proof necessary to initiate forfeiture proceedings and streamlines the legal process for federal cases, providing a level of protection for those seeking the return of their property.

In Carson City, AB350 strengthens state reporting requirements for police departments when it comes to their forfeiture activity. Under current law, law enforcement agencies must file annual reports with the attorney general’s office regarding assets seized. The AG’s office, in turn, compiles an aggregate analysis available to the public.

But the final product lacks key details, such as whether charges were filed. It also lumps together individual cases, making it more difficult to analyze state forfeiture activity. AB350 would ensure that the AG’s report includes more detailed information about the scope of seizure activity in Nevada while making it easier for watchdogs to access the information. The proposal passed the Assembly unanimously.

The practice of civil forfeiture raises important constitutional questions about due process and property rights. Critics on both the left and right have highlighted numerous high-profile abuses in which innocent owners became entangled in a labyrinth of forfeiture law as they attempted to retrieve their property. Ultimately, no American should lose his or her assets to the government absent a criminal conviction. Until that approach is codified, however, the FAIR Act and AB350 represent steps in a promising direction.

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