EDITORIAL: Forfeiture reform moves forward in Carson City

There hasn’t been much for Republicans and Democrats to agree on during the 2019 legislative session. GOP lawmakers, relegated to the minority by Nevada voters following the November election, have been forced to play perpetual defense against a host of Democratic proposals.

But at least one worthwhile measure that has so far survived in Carson City offers a rare opportunity for bipartisanship. Let’s hope legislative leaders in both parties seize the opportunity.

Friday was the deadline for bills to emerge out of committee or be shuttled off to the legislative boneyard. There are some exceptions, including for budget measures. One proposal that moved forward was Assembly Bill 420, which would reform the state’s civil forfeiture laws. It’s a long-overdue and important measure.

Under civil forfeiture, law enforcement officials may seize homes, cars, cash and other valuables based a mere suspicion that they may have been involved in criminal activity. The owner need never be formally charged, let alone convicted, of wrongdoing. If prosecutors subsequently initiate civil forfeiture proceedings following a seizure, the cherished concept of “innocent until proven guilty” does not apply. Innocent owners face a cumbersome and expensive legal process if they seek the return of their property.

Forfeiture dates back to colonial days, but the tactic became much more widespread beginning in the 1980s during the drug war. Lawmakers across the country gave police much more leeway to use the tactic under the guise that it would help bring down drug kingpins and criminal enterprises. In many cases, the police are also allowed to keep a portion of the proceeds from seizures to pad budgets and even cover personnel costs. This can amount to millions of dollars a year for some departments, creating an obvious incentive for them to pursue such cases at the expense of other priorities.

As a result, the practice has become fraught with controversy — and for good reason. Not only does civil forfeiture raise major constitutional issues involving due process, property rights and the presumption of innocence, it has been shown to be widely abused.

In one high-profile example, Elko police were forced to return $167,000 they took from a motorist on Interstate 80 after a coordinated traffic stop. The man was never ticketed, but the authorities helped themselves to all the cash they found in his vehicle during a search. The Nevada Policy Research Institute reported that the Metropolitan Police Department took in $1.9 million in forfeiture proceeds during fiscal 2016, the vast majority of which involved property that was worth less than what it would have taken to contest the action. Many of these cases took place in low-income and minority neighborhoods.

Nobody should lose their property to the state without first being convicted of a criminal offense. And that’s exactly what AB420 would ensure. The proposal provides that property is subject to forfeiture only if there is “(1) proof of a criminal conviction; (2) a plea agreement, or (3) an agreement by the parties.” It also places the burden on the state to prove that “the seized property is forfeitable by clear and convincing evidence” and ensures that property owners are entitled to a timely hearing if they contest the action.

Finally, it allows law enforcement agencies to recoup “reasonable expenses” from forfeiture loot, but mandates that the remaining proceeds be placed in the state permanent school fund.

AB420 emerged from the Assembly Judiciary Committee last week with the support of all the panel’s Democrats and a handful of the Republicans. That bodes well for bipartisan cooperation as the measure heads to the full Assembly. For Democrats, the bill is an integral part of criminal justice reform and would help protect vulnerable populations from potential abuses at the hands of the police. For Republicans, the bill strengthens property rights and due process while still allowing law enforcement to separate convicted criminals from their ill-gotten gains.

In past sessions, law enforcement lobbyists have successfully killed or neutered similar efforts. Let’s hope fairness and justice finally triumphs. Lawmakers from both parties should resist such inevitable pressure and vote to join the growing movement to reform the dubious practice known as civil asset forfeiture.

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