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EDITORIAL: Legislature missed an opportunity to reform civil asset forfeiture

A bill that earned overwhelming bipartisan support in the Assembly didn’t even receive a hearing in the Senate. That was the unfortunate end of civil forfeiture reform efforts this legislative session.

Civil forfeiture sounds like something that happens only in Third World countries. It allows police to take property they suspect has been involved in a crime even if the owner is never convicted or even charged with wrongdoing. Innocent owners bear the burden of proof if they hope to recover their valuables, a burdensome and expensive process. Making matters worse, the police are often allowed to keep the proceeds of the items they seize, which encourages “policing for profit” as the Institute for Justice has so aptly labeled it.

Consider the case of Tan Nguyen. He was pulled over in Humboldt County for driving 3 mph over the speed limit. A police deputy searched his car and found $50,000 in cash. It isn’t illegal to carry cash, but the deputy seized the money on the assumption it was drug-related even though no drugs were found in Mr. Nguyen’s possession. He was never charged with a crime or even given a speeding ticket. The deputy was happy to send him on his way — after he had helped himself to the man’s cash.

Mr. Nguyen sued. A court eventually ordered the return of his money plus $10,000 for attorney fees.

Mr. Nguyen ultimately received justice, but he never should have been forced to undergo such an ordeal. Assembly Bill 420, sponsored by the Assembly Judiciary Committee, would have prevented similar situations.

AB420 would have tied forfeiture proceedings to criminal convictions, plea bargains or agreements between the parties. The state would have had to prove that the property was subject to forfeiture. It would have moved these cases from civil to criminal court and given the accused, at a minimum, access to a public defender.

Just as important, AB420 would have prevented police departments from keeping the proceeds of any forfeiture in excess of expenses.

Assembly Judiciary chairman Steve Yeager, D-Las Vegas, did yeoman’s work moving the bill through the lower chamber. It passed 34-6, with only six Republicans opposed. Unfortunately, it never came up for a vote in the Senate Judiciary Committee, chaired by Majority Leader Nicole Cannizzaro, D-Las Vegas. It’s likely the bill never had a chance. Ms. Cannizzaro moonlights as a chief deputy district attorney in Clark County. Exhibit No. 57 regarding the dangers of ignoring the constitutional provision banning public employees from serving in the Legislature.

No Nevadan should lose his or her property at the hands of the state without first being convicted of a crime. Reforming Nevada’s civil forfeiture laws should be a bipartisan priority when lawmakers reconvene in 2021.

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