Maine became the fourth state in the nation to abolish civil asset forfeiture, a practice where law enforcement can seize property if they suspect it is connected to criminal activity, even if the owner is not convicted of a crime.
After a bill passed by the state legislature, LD 1521, took effect without the governor's signature yesterday, Maine officially repealed its civil forfeiture laws, joining Nebraska, New Mexico, and North Carolina.
Law enforcement groups say civil asset forfeiture is a crucial tool to disrupt drug trafficking and organized crime by targeting their ill-gotten proceeds. However, groups like the Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning public interest law firm, say civil forfeiture provides too few due process protections for property owners, who often bear the burden of proving their innocence, and creates too many perverse profit incentives for police.
"Civil forfeiture is one of the most serious assaults on due process and private property rights in America today," Institute for Justice Senior Legislative Counsel Lee McGrath said in a press release. McGrath says Maine's new law "ends an immense injustice and will ensure that only convicted criminals—and not innocent Mainers—lose their property to forfeiture."
The new law will allow property forfeiture without a criminal conviction in only a few narrow circumstances, such as when it is abandoned or the owner dies. The law also creates a right to a prompt post-seizure hearing for owners and requires the Maine Department of Public Safety to post forfeiture reports on its website.
(In 2018, the Maine Beacon reported that, despite a law requiring the Department of Public Safety to create quarterly reports of seized property, it had never done so.)
More significantly, Maine's new law ends the so-called "equitable sharing loophole," which allows state and local police to partner with federal law enforcement and move forfeiture cases to federal court. In doing so, local law enforcement can evade stricter state laws and keep up to 80 percent of the forfeiture proceeds. The other 20 percent goes into a Justice Department fund that distributes revenues to participating law enforcement agencies across the country.
The Institute for Justice reported that Maine law enforcement collected more than $14 million through equitable sharing over the past two decades. In contrast, just over $3 million was forfeited under state law between 2009 and 2019.
Over the past decade, more than half of all U.S. states have passed some form of asset forfeiture reform in response to media investigations and reports by civil liberties groups that found the practice frequently ensnared innocent owners. Reason has reported extensively on civil liberties abuses involving civil asset forfeiture: petty seizures, shakedowns, and kicking people out of their houses for minor drug crimes.
In April, Arizona became the 16th state to require a criminal conviction before police can proceed to forfeit property under its civil asset forfeiture laws. (Unlike the states that have completely abolished civil forfeiture, these states still allow property to be forfeited in civil court once a criminal conviction has been obtained.)