October 6, 2016 - 8:00 pm
Following California’s lead on a policy issue is often a bad move. But when it comes to civil forfeiture, Nevada lawmakers should take notice of recent developments in the Golden State.
Under the doctrine of civil forfeiture, police may seize property — cash, cars, homes and other valuables — on a mere suspicion that it is associated with a crime. In many instances, the owner need not be charged with wrongdoing.
Law enforcement officials argue that such statutes allow them to go after the ill-gotten gains of drug lords and other criminals, but civil liberties groups point out that the system is prone to abuse and can too easily ensnare the innocent.
Efforts to reform forfeiture laws have gained momentum across the nation, but often collapse under pressure from police and prosecutors. California lawmakers, however, have managed to take a few steps forward.
For more than two decades, California has required a criminal conviction before property or cash valued at less than $25,000 may be forfeited to the government — a far stricter standard than in most jurisdictions. But local and state police agencies have been evading that stipulation by coupling with federal task forces — which aren’t bound by state law — under the Department of Justice’s “equitable sharing” arrangement.
Last week, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a measure to close this loophole.
The new law not only raises the threshold from $25,000 to $40,000, it also demands that prosecutors obtain a criminal conviction before law enforcement may receive any payments from the feds through the equitable sharing program. While the reform won’t stop large-scale seizures absent a conviction, it’s certainly an improvement.
“It seems reasonable to me that if you can’t convict me of a crime,” California state Sen. Holly Mitchell explained in an interview with Reason earlier this year, “you can’t assume my assets were gained through illegal activity.”
Some 18 states have tweaked their forfeiture laws in the past two years, according to the Institute for Justice, a national public-interest law firm that has long shed light on the injustices inherent in such policies. Nebraska and New Mexico have abolished civil forfeiture altogether, requiring a criminal conviction before prosecutors may initiate forfeiture proceedings.
Senate Bill 138, introduced during the 2015 legislative session in Carson City, would have eliminated civil forfeiture in Nevada and directed all proceeds to the general fund instead of to the police agencies involved. It was shredded beyond recognition, leaving intact only tougher reporting requirements regarding seizure activity.
Lawmakers should revive the bill’s original language during the 2017 session. No citizens should lose their personal property absent a criminal conviction. But if the Legislature doesn’t have the courage to emulate New Mexico or Nebraska, it should at least follow California’s lead by crafting similar protections and ensuring law enforcement agencies can’t piggyback on the Justice Department to get around those requirements.