Asset Forfeiture

Connecticut to Require Convictions Before Trying to Seize and Keep People's Property

But keep an eye out for a federal loophole.

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Photographerlondon / Dreamstime.com

First the good news: Democratic Connecticut Gov. Dannell Malloy has signed a bill requiring police and prosecutors to actually convict somebody of a crime before trying to take his or her stuff.

HB 7146 is intended to restrain police and prosecutors from abusing civil asset forfeiture, the process by which law enforcement agencies seize people's property when they've allegedly been involved with crimes.

The process is prone to abuse because the "civil" process often means police do not have to prove a citizen is actually guilty of a crime in order to keep their stuff. In many cases, the person doesn't even need to be charged with a crime. Instead the property itself is accused of being connected to criminal activity, and the owner of the property must (if he or she can afford it) prove the property wasn't purchased or earned as a result of illicit activity.

While asset forfeiture is sold to the public as a way of separating criminal masterminds from the rewards of their illegal behavior, it is often used to seize small amounts of money and assets from low-level criminals (or alleged criminals). In Connecticut, the median forfeiture amounts for the past couple of years totaled less than $600. As this infographic from the Reason Foundation (the nonprofit that publishes this site) notes, it often costs more to hire a lawyer to fight asset forfeiture than the value of the property being seized.

Connecticut is the latest of several states to reform their laws after Malloy signed HB 7146 late yesterday. Under the new law, police and prosecutors will have to get a person convicted of a crime (or have them plead guilty) before they can pursue property forfeiture.

The forfeiture process will itself remain a civil procedure with a lower threshold of proof. Nevertheless, it's significant that a person will actually have to prosecuted before authorities can pursue their property.

Now comes the bad news: A program at the federal Department of Justice will allow police to bypass these new restrictions. The "Equitable Sharing" program lets local law enforcement agencies partner with the feds on raids and other police actions. The police then route the forfeitures through the federal government instead of state courts. This allows police in many states to keep more of the property or assets (up to 80 percent) under looser guidelines than they would under their state's own forfeiture guidelines.

Some states who have reformed their asset forfeiture laws—Arizona, for example, just this April—have structured their changes in such a way that police cannot simply bypass them by turning to the federal government. Unfortunately, that component did not make it into Connecticut's law.

According to Justice Department numbers, Connecticut law enforcement agencies brought in $766,241 in fiscal year 2016 through the Equitable Sharing program. That's not a lot of money, but Connecticut's revenue from forfeiture on both the state and federal level has varied significantly over the years. Over a multi-year period analyzed by the property-rights-protecting legal analysts at the Institute for Justice, Connecticut law enforcement agencies brought in an annual average of $2.1 million through state seizures and $1.7 million through the federal program. We'll have to keep an eye on whether those numbers shift.