Good news for Nebraska citizens (or citizens passing through Nebraska) who are fans of things like due process and property rights: The governor has signed a law that reforms the state's asset forfeiture laws to require convictions.
I noted last week that Nebraska's legislature had passed LB 1106 and sent it to the governor. LB 1106 reforms the state's asset forfeiture laws—the process by which prosecutors and police are able to seize and keep cash and property from people suspected of crimes—to require actual conviction. Like many states (and the federal government), Nebraska has a system of "civil" asset forfeiture, which meant that police and prosecutors could attempt to seize somebody's property on the mere basis of suspicion of criminal activity. Conviction—indeed even a criminal charge—wasn't always necessary. This often makes the forfeiture a civil process that puts the burden of proof on the citizen to show that the property was innocent of criminal involvement. LB 1106 ends that civil process. Police and prosecutors must convict a person of a crime and then pursue criminal asset forfeiture.
The law also puts tougher rules on participation with the Department of Justice's equitable sharing program. This program allows law enforcement agencies to bypass state restrictions and controls by partnering with federal law enforcement on busts. This program has allowed police departments across the country to completely ignore state-level efforts to protect citizens from abusive forfeiture techniques.
Nebraska's new laws don't completely prohibit participation with the federal program but does set requirements. It forbids state and local law enforcement agencies from participating in the federal program unless the assets involved are worth more than $25,000, unless a federal agent is physically there taking the property, or unless the suspect (or the suspect's property) is subject to federal prosecution. That $25,000 threshold is the important restriction. Despite acting as though asset forfeiture is being used by police to bust up the operations of drug crime lords, the majority of forfeitures are of much smaller amounts of cash or property of much lower value.
The property-protecting lawyers cheered on Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts signing the bill into law today:
"Civil forfeiture is one of the most serious assaults on due process and private property rights in America today. Today's decision to abolish civil forfeiture will ensure that only convicted criminals—and not innocent Nebraskans—lose their property to forfeiture."
"In light of the U.S. Justice Department's misguided decision to revive its controversial 'equitable sharing' program, it is encouraging to see the governor sign a bill that bans transferring seized property in joint task forces or by adoption to federal law enforcement, unless it includes cash or property worth more than $25,000. For too long, local and state law enforcement have used equitable sharing to bypass Nebraska state law because the federal governments offers substantially higher payouts to law enforcement than what law enforcement receives under state law and is allowed by the Nebraska Constitution.