Forfeiture Reform

Stopping police seizures


The Council of the District of Columbia has voted unanimously to overhaul laws governing the police department's ability to confiscate property suspected of being involved or connected with a crime. The Civil Asset Forfeiture Amendment Act of 2014 removes the perverse incentive of allowing police and prosecutors to keep what they seize. Instead, revenue generated from forfeitures will go into the city's general fund.

The bill also closes a loophole that has undermined other states' attempts at reform. Under a federal program known as Equitable Sharing, state and local law enforcement agencies are allowed to keep up to 80 percent of revenue generated when they refer a forfeiture case to a federal agency. The D.C. reform changes that practice, but not until 2019, due to existing budget plans that depend on revenue from the program.

Finally, the bill strengthens protections for property owners by increasing the burden of proof required before something can be seized. Cash amounts of less than $1,000 will not be forfeitable; the government will have to show that there is "clear and convincing evidence" that a vehicle has been used in the commission of a crime; and houses will only be eligible for forfeiture if the owner has been convicted of breaking the law. The reform also abolishes the District's penal bond, which charges people as much as $2,500 before forfeitures can be challenged in court.

If Mayor Vincent Gray signs the bill, Congress will have 60 "legislative days"-days when the body is in session-to review it before it becomes law.