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Nevada lawmakers should beef up forfeiture protections

With Democrats and Republicans at loggerheads, it’s refreshing to find one issue both parties support: the need to protect Americans from abusive police seizures.

Under “civil forfeiture” laws, police can seize — and keep — cash, cars and real estate, even if the owner is never convicted of, much less charged with, a crime. This year, the party platforms for both the national Republican and Democratic parties endorsed forfeiture reform.

As the Republican Party explains in its platform, “civil asset forfeiture was originally intended as a way to cripple organized crime.” But today, “it has become a tool for unscrupulous law enforcement officials, acting without due process, to profit by destroying the livelihood of innocent individuals, many of whom never recover the lawful assets taken from them.”

Similarly, the Democratic Party platform calls to “to protect people and remove perverse incentives for law enforcement to ‘police for a profit.’ ”

Current Nevada law requires a conviction as a prerequisite to forfeit property in cases in which the owner also faces criminal charges. But an effort to prevent prosecutors from initiating forfeiture proceedings absent criminal charges died under pressure from law enforcement lobbyists during the 2015 legislative session.

Today, only 11 other states have passed this critical protection for due process.

Unfortunately, a loophole lets police circumvent state criminal-conviction requirements. Under “equitable sharing,” state and local agencies can partner with a federal agency (such as the DEA or ICE), forfeit the property under federal law, and then receive up to 80 percent of the proceeds. That’s quite the incentive to police for profit.

A report by the Institute for Justice found that between 2000 and 2013, Nevada agencies received more than $50 million in equitable-sharing funds from the U.S. Department of Justice and the Treasury Department. The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department itself has spent more than $9 million in federal forfeiture funds, including purchasing furniture for its headquarters and a patrol helicopter. According to one recent investigation into the program nationwide, “in 81 percent of cases no one was indicted.”

Fortunately, the tide is now turning. In the past two years alone, lawmakers have reached across the aisle and reformed forfeiture laws in 18 states. Late last month, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed a new forfeiture law that requires, in most cases, a criminal conviction before agencies can receive any money from equitable sharing. New Mexico and Nebraska have gone even further: Both strictly limited participation in equitable sharing and abolished civil forfeiture entirely.

In Congress, lawmakers may soon vote on the DUE PROCESS Act, which would fix many glaring defects in federal forfeiture law. The measure would provide owners with a right to an attorney, raise the standard of proof to forfeit property and require an annual audit to bolster transparency and accountability. The bill would also require the government to prove that owners knew of or consented to alleged criminal conduct with their property, which would restore the presumption of innocence for federal civil forfeiture cases.

In May, the bill was reported out of the House Judiciary Committee by a voice vote, reflecting the bipartisan leadership and consensus around civil-forfeiture reform.

For too long, civil forfeiture has victimized tens of thousands of innocent people and incentivized police to become bounty hunters. This travesty of justice has no place in a free society. Let’s hope this new bipartisan consensus will boost forfeiture reform efforts both in Nevada and nationwide.

Nick Sibilla is a writer at the Institute for Justice.

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