Civil Asset Forfeiture

Illinois Legislature Passes Asset Forfeiture Reform

State's Attorney urges governor to sign the bill after Reason story shows poor hit hardest by asset forfeiture in Chicago.


Jose M. Osorio/TNS/Newscom

The Illinois legislature overwhelmingly passed a bill Friday tightening the state's civil asset forfeiture laws and shifting the burden of proof onto the government to show why it should be allowed to keep seized property.

The vote came on the heels of an investigative report from Reason earlier this month showing lower-income neighborhoods of Chicago were hit hardest by asset forfeiture.

Reason's report, analyzing more than 23,000 property seizures over the last five years, was cited by Cook County State's Attorney Kim Foxx in a letter to the Chicago Tribune Saturday urging Republican Illinois Gov. Bruce Rauner to sign the bill into law. Foxx wrote that civil asset forfeiture's disproportionate impact on poor and minority communities was an "injustice."

The bill, approved unanimously in the state senate and with only one dissenting vote in the house, would raise the standard of evidence for forfeitures from probable cause to a preponderance of evidence and bar seizures under $500 in many drug cases.

It would also abolish a requirement of residents challenging seizures that they pay a 10 percent bond on the estimated value of their property to file a petition, and expedite hearings for owners claiming innocence.

Civil rights groups including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Illinois, say current bond requirements, a slow appeals process, and low standards of proof for the government make appealing a property seizure, especially for low-income residents, a Sisyphean task.

Overall, civil liberties groups are pleased with the bill. "The main thing is shifting the burden of proof clearly onto the state and relieving property owners of having to prove their innocence," Ben Ruddell, a staff attorney at the ACLU of Illinois, says.

Bill sponsors reached a compromise with law enforcement groups narrowing the sweep of the original bill, dropping a required criminal conviction before property could be forfeited. New Mexico and Nebraska have enacted such requirements over the strenuous objections of law enforcement.

The compromise allowed the bill to proceed with the backing of state law enforcement, such as Foxx, a reform-minded state prosecutor for the Chicago area. Foxx became the first African-American woman to be elected to the position in November 2016, defeating incumbent Cook County State's Attorney Anita Alvarez, who was pilloried for her handling of the fatal police shooting of Laquan McDonald.

"As state's attorney, I am committed to taking violent criminals off the streets and pursuing innovative ways to do so," Foxx wrote. "But I also understand—and fiercely defend—the presumption of innocence. Our justice system was built on that idea, and public trust in our system depends on it. We deserve a data-informed justice system and smart policies that truly protect our communities, and we need our governor to help us deliver."

Prosecutors, whose budgets are often padded by asset forfeiture revenue, are usually among the most vocal opponents of reform measures. Ruddell says he was thrilled "to have the prosecutor in the most populous county in the state be on board. Hopefully this will persuade the governor that he need not think very long and hard before signing this bill."

There are some steps state's attorney's offices could take on their own to better ensure a fair justice system. As Ruddell notes, the Cook County State's Attorney's Office (CCSAO) has practically unlimited discretion to decide which forfeiture cases to pursue or drop.

"The CCSAO has been very active in the number of forfeiture cases it brings," Ruddell says. "We hope that in addition to Foxx's support of the bill, we'll see the state's attorney's office putting more scrutiny on the seizures that come to them and using the discretion they have to say, 'You know what, we're not going to proceed on this forfeiture case based on the facts before us.'"

According to public records reviewed by Reason, the CCSAO declined to pursue forfeiture in just 2,100 of the 23,000 cases brought to it by law enforcement between 2012 and 2017.

Asset forfeiture is huge revenue stream for Illinois. A joint report by the ACLU of Illinois and the Illinois Policy Institute found that the state raked in $319 million in forfeiture funds over the last decade.

The vast majority of that goes back into the coffers of state's attorney's offices and police departments. The legislation would also create new public reporting requirements, bringing more transparency to how law enforcement in Illinois utilize asset forfeiture.

"Shining a light on forfeiture fund spending is particularly important because Illinois law lets agencies keep 90 percent of what they confiscate," says Jennifer McDonald, a research analyst at the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit law firm that has challenged asset forfeiture laws in several states. "This self-financing outside of the legislature's power of the purse has long enabled law enforcement to escape public scrutiny and accountability."

Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that a joint report on Illinois' asset forfeiture program was authored by the ACLU of Illinois and the Institute for Justice. In fact, it was authored by the ACLU of Illinois and the Illinois Policy Institute.

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    1. I have a coworker whose brother is retired city-of-Illinois pensioner. He says they’re starting to skip paychecks and there are times when he doesn’t know he’s going to get paid. Shit’s gettin’ real over there.

      1. That sort of thing would never happen in California. Here, Nancy Pelosi and Diane Feinstein just grab moderately wealthy males by the balls and squeeze really hard until the money comes out (their billionaire buddies are exempt, of course).

  2. The Illinois legislature [shifted] the burden of proof onto the government to show why it should be allowed to keep seized seized property.

    “Because it’s *seized*, DUH!”

    1. But is it seized seized?

      1. Who gives a whoopi.

  3. Foxx wrote that civil asset forfeiture’s disproportionate impact on poor and minority communities was an “injustice.”

    Too bad we can’t just say it’s unconstitutional to forfeit steal anybody’s stuff without due process, but I’ll take what I can get.

    1. Don’t worry, the Illinois Supreme Court will be along before too long to explain how this new law violates the Illinois constitution’s prohibition on doing anything that takes food from the mouth of public sector unions.

      Oh, wait, you’re talking about a different kind of unconstitutional….carry on.

  4. Similar stuff went on in Chicago in the 30s. Judge Lyle had bootleggers arrested for vagrancy and only accepted huge bonds with unencumbered real property as guaranty–this in addition to ongoing federal libels, forfeitures, confiscations and and tax foreclosures on account of prohibition and the collapsing economy it resulted in. Taxpayers, ALL of them armed back then, went into full-scale revolt, with banks failing all over town. False color maps show where this robbery is endemic, and it is precisely where the Bush collapse began (with pundits pointing away from asset forfeiture of homes triggering the mortgage-based securities collapse). Gary could have WON the damn election had the truth leaked out.

  5. the state raked in $319 million in forfeiture funds over the last decade.
    Illinois law lets agencies keep 90 percent of what they confiscate

    What do they do with the money?

    1. They’re the ones who enforce the law. Anything they want.

    2. They count it as income to pad their pension entitlements.

      1. You get an MRAP! And you get an MRAP! And you get an MRAP!

        Now let’s keep the seized cash flowing so we can pay for the maintenance on these things…

  6. Isn’t in a Herculean task rather than a Sisyphean one?

    1. Yes.

      The author also repeats a word in the first paragraph.

    2. Sisyphean is more accurate as it highlight how useless it currently is to dispute the seizures.

  7. It seems to me that just having forfeited assets go into the general fund would remove a lot of the incentive.

    Requiring a conviction would be better by far. Who’s deciding what is a preponderance of the evidence? The police? No wonder they are OK with this bill.

    If you have assets seized, you likely have to go through a long process to get your assets back. Is that being made any easier?

    1. Not in Illinois it wouldn’t. Have you seen their general fund?

    2. I think that is the fucked up thing about this. The state should only be able to freeze assets. And then only once formal charges are filed, and only until either a verdict is reached, or the state drops the charges. At which time, if found not guilty or charges are dropped, the assets should be returned (freed) automatically and immediately.

      After all, the nominal reason for this in the first place was so “rich drug lords” can’t buy their way out of a conviction. Obviously, it is literally just a “money grab”.

      1. See what FreeRadical said just below.

  8. Until one of these reforms gets rid of the utterly absurd notion of charging the property itself with a crime, the problem will not go away.

    Courts are filled with cases like State of Illinois vs. 500 dollars US currency.

    1. That’s just crazy talk. Google it and you’ll get no results returned.

      1. I did find this.


        I’m surprised that this is legal being money can’t effectively communicate its defense.

  9. What is interesting, is that SCOTUS just ruled a few weeks ago on criminal asset forfeiture. IIRC, they ruled that for criminal asset forfeiture the defendant had to be found guilty, and the state had to show the person directly received that money from participating in the criminal enterprise.

    And yet, there is apparently nothing wrong with taking anyone’s money or property and NOT charging them with a crime.

    I can sort of see if a person is formally charged with a crime, a hearing could be held in which the State must show a preponderance of evidence that certain property or sums of money were gained during the commission of the crime they are charged with. Not unlike a bail hearing. If the judge deems that it was likely that the stuff was ill-gotten gains, the state could freeze those funds, or hold the property in some sort of stasis for the duration of the trial. If the defendant is found guilty, then the state can go through with the seizure (within the constraints above). If the defendant is found not guily, or the charges are dropped, the property should be automatically returned without prejudice. Why is this so fucking hard?

    1. Why do you hate America?

  10. Good. The question now is, will Gov. Rauner sign the bill? I’ve heard he hasn’t been too bad on criminal justice reform issues since he’s been in office, so there is hope.

  11. “The vote came on the heels of an investigative report from Reason earlier this month showing lower-income neighborhoods of Chicago were hit hardest by asset forfeiture.”

    Are we Libertarian or Progressive?

    Civil Asset Forfeiture impacts every all. The poor people maybe impacted most but means testing the impact of civil asset forfeiture is not an answer.

    Should C.J. wish to donate private money offset confiscation so be it.

    But I am sorry, the crime of civil asset forfeiture is not racist.

    1. Good point — a common progressive argument is that if a policy disproportionately affects one race, then it is automatically racist, even if it is written in non-racist terms. That is not an argument we should be encouraging.

      The income tax disproportionately affects some races over others, so is it racist?

      1. I think it’s just flat out not an argument.

    2. Ideologically correct. But the “hurts the poor” argument got results the “wrong for middle class and rich people too” argument would not have.

  12. As Iowahawk says it’s Puerto Rico with blizzards.

  13. Sorry. Asset ‘forfeiture’ reform consists of these words: “The fourth amendment means what it says.”

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  15. I wonder if civil asset forfeiture contributed to their state and local budget issues? If California’s “Prop 13” (limiting property tax increases) was what saved California’s state and local budgets from the worst effects of the last real estate bubble-burst, then maybe civil asset forfeiture did the opposite.
    Because CA real estate bubbles are limited in their effect of raising tax revenue (re-assessing only new sales, and capped at 2% per year on everything else–protecting homeowners from losing their homes due to other people buying and selling), state budget growth and new expenses were limited. Most other states quickly became addicted to the revenue from the bubble.
    Revenue from asset forfeitures certainly found its way into budgets, bloating their expectations. The question is, how big will their budgets be when they lose this revenue, and start looking to preserve their parasitic spending? Eventually, they would run out of assets to seize. The sooner the plug is pulled, the better — good decision, not only for our rights, but fiscally. It’s much better to prevent budget growth and spending than to let it grow, and then try to cut it back.

  16. Civil asset forfeiture is death to due process and death to the right to own property.…..icture.htm

  17. I wonder if civil asset forfeiture contributed to their state and local budget issues.…..nline.html

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