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EDITORIAL: Metro cashes in on civil forfeiture statutes

In the most recent fiscal year, the Metropolitan Police Department made $2.2 million through civil asset forfeitures, according to statistics compiled by the attorney general’s office. That money is generated by police seizures of cars, cash and other valuables that officers believe are connected to a crime.

It’s important to note that seizures are not the same as forfeitures. Property may be confiscated by law enforcement, but later returned to the owner. If prosecutors believe forfeiture is warranted, they must initiate such proceedings in court against the property in question.

“Our paramount issue,” Richard Hoggin, Metro’s chief financial officer, told the Review-Journal’s Max Michor, “is that people involved in criminal activity not reap rewards from that activity. … We say, “This guy did something really bad, and he shouldn’t get paid for dealing drugs or pimping teenage girls.”

Fair enough. Forcing criminals to part with their ill-gotten gains — particularly to cover restitution for victims — makes sense.

The problem, however, is that prosecutors often pursue forfeiture cases against property owners who have never been charged, let alone convicted, of a crime. And many innocent property owners don’t have the resources to fight a lengthy court battle, particularly when the costs of legal action would exceed that value of the asset seized.

A 2017 report by the Nevada Policy Research Institute examined forfeiture activity in the valley and determined that a majority of it occurred in low-income, minority neighborhoods and involved assets worth less than $1,000. Many of the property owners were never formally charged. Few would have had the means or incentive to contest the forfeiture.

The system invites abuses. In a particularly high-profile case, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the Elko police in 2017 after an officer took $167,000 in cash from a motorist following a 2013 traffic stop on Interstate 80. The driver was never charged with a crime, but the authorities moved to keep the money on the grounds that it was involved in drug activity.

Last month, the Supreme Court imposed some limits on the controversial practice of civil forfeiture, ruling unanimously that the Eighth Amendment’s provision against excessive fines applies to the states. That means prosecutors will be subject to increased scrutiny when they initiate forfeiture proceedings for relatively minor offenses.

That’s good. But Nevada lawmakers should go further. A handful of states now require a criminal conviction before the government may take property. This is a wise reform that would allow the police to ensure criminals aren’t reaping “rewards” for their wrongdoing without eviscerating constitutional protections. The Legislature should ensure that no Nevadan loses property to forfeiture without first being found guilty of a criminal offense.

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