A pack of Republican members of Ohio's House are taking on police and prosecutor interests by introducing legislation this week that would eliminate civil asset forfeiture in the state. Police would still be able to seize and keep money and property, but they'll have to land a conviction first. From the Columbus Dispatch:
State Rep. Rob McColley, R-Napoleon, a prime sponsor of the bill, said he is not alleging any specific abuse in Ohio. But when a law allows the state to take people's property without a conviction, it's an "affront to one of our country's most-basic principles of justice: that people are innocent until proven guilty."
The bill does not affect law enforcement's ability to seize evidence, McColley said. It would bar forfeiture of property to the state without a conviction. Also, for assets to be held during a criminal proceeding, the bill would require the state to prove that the property is subject to forfeiture.
Here's what a prosecutor had to say about it:
John Murphy said he is well aware of the horror stories, but the executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association said Ohio law protects against those kinds of problems and does not need to be changed.
The process is supervised by the courts, and the taking of property cannot be out of proportion with the nature of the offense, Murphy said.
"We're being tagged with the sins of others," he said.
And here's why Murphy is full of crap. Yes, according to the property-protecting folks of the Institute for Justice, Ohio actually does have pretty good asset forfeiture laws, requiring a higher threshold of proof than some other states and not feeding the proceeds from civil asset forfeiture back to local police departments, thus avoiding some twisted financial incentives.
The problem, though, is that Ohio doesn't have anything preventing its law enforcement agencies from partnering with the Department of Justice to use its Equitable Sharing forfeiture program to seize property under much looser guidelines and keep the money and assets for themselves in defiance of state regulations. That's exactly what Ohio law enforcement agencies have done, getting more than $80 million this way between 2000 and 2008.
Under McColley's bill, cash seizures could not be made through the federal asset forfeiture program unless the value exceeded $50,000. This is important because while law enforcement representatives like to suggest they're using asset forfeiture to fight major drug dealers, in reality the average asset forfeiture value is just a few thousand dollars. In the event that Ohio police actually do make a major drug bust, they'll still be able to participate in the sharing program.
Oh, and despite insisting they're being tagged with "the sins of others," a reminder about Ohio's absurd behavior in fighting the war on drugs: This is the state that outlawed customizing your own vehicle to put in secret compartments.