The Ohio legislature could pass a bill this week overhauling the state's civil asset forfeiture laws that allow police to seize property without convicting the owner of a crime.
As early as Tuesday, the Ohio senate is expected to vote to join a number of other states, most recently California, that have tightened asset forfeiture laws in response to bipartisan criticism from civil liberties groups that the practice lacks due process protections for property owners and creates perverse profit incentives for police.
The Ohio bill would require a criminal conviction for forfeitures under $25,000, a provision that the bill's supporters say will keep innocent citizens and business owners from having their money seized, while still allowing police to go after large-scale drug traffickers. It would also limit coordination with federal drug task forces—a tactic that civil liberties groups say local police use to skirt stringent state rules—to cases that involve more than $100,000.
Criminal justice and civil liberties groups from both sides of the political aisle have been pressing the bill for the better part of 18 months. Earlier this year, the conservative advocacy group FreedomWorks said it drove 52,000 calls and messages from its members to the Ohio senate in favor of the bill.
The bill passed the Republican-controlled state house by a wide margin in May, but revisions to assuage concerns from law enforcement have delayed a senate vote. The new version of the bill would preserve police's ability to keep unclaimed property, as well as property from deceased owners. This week could be the last week of the legislative session in Ohio, meaning if it is not voted on or fails, the bill would have to be reintroduced next year, starting the whole process over.
On a conference call with reporters in October, Democratic Ohio state senator Cecil Thomas said "as a former law enforcement officer, I understand the the spirit of the law was to focus on illicit drug activities," but he agrees that due process protections are needed.
"Often times, I would hear from officers on the police force," Thomas said. "They'd stop an individual with $150 in his pockets. If he couldn't articulate clearly where he got the money, they'd assume it was drugs, so they'd bring in a drug dog. The dog alerts on money, the money is seized, and then it's up to individual to prove where he got the dollars. I never thought that was the proper way to deal with the situation. This particular legislation will still try to address these problems and ensure every citizen is treated fairly."
However, law enforcement groups have continued to oppose the legislation, even after the senate amended it. Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association executive director John Murphy told the Columbus Dispatch on Monday:
Ohio has a top-notch civil-forfeiture law, Murphy said, and the increases in reports of forfeiture abuses have come from other states or under federal law. He called the bill misguided.
Ohio's law "is chock-full of due-process protections," he said. "There is no evidence of substantial abuse of the forfeiture statute in Ohio."
Police chiefs expressed concern about a handful of provisions, including new limits on how forfeited proceeds can be used.
The Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning public interest law firm that has filed lawsuits in several states challenging asset forfeiture laws, gives Ohio's asset forfeiture laws a "D-" grade for its lax due process protections, lack of reporting requirements, and the high percentage of revenue from seizures—90 to 100 percent—that goes straight back into police and prosecutor budgets.