By Bryant Jackson-Green
Many states, including Illinois, allow police to take property they suspect is related to criminal activity without having to prove a connection. Under federal and many states’ civil asset forfeiture laws, such property – cash, vehicles, computers, real estate, etc., – can be taken without a criminal conviction or a warrant, and sometimes without formally charging the property owner with a crime.
When police departments are allowed to use the assets they take as revenue for themselves – as they often can and do – incentives for abuse abound.
Asset forfeiture is a problem throughout the country, but some states have taken action to limit or ban the practice. New Mexico and Montana, for example, only allow police to seize private property after a criminal conviction. Minnesota enacted significant reforms in 2014 in the wake of scandals involving police using funds from seized property for trips to Hawaii, as well as law enforcement’s inability to account for a large part of the proceeds from seized assets.
Michigan has become the latest state to reform its civil asset forfeiture laws under legislation enacted by Gov. Rick Snyder on Oct. 20. Michigan law enforcement now will have to meet a higher burden of proof to show that property seized by police is connected to a crime. “Clear and convincing” evidence will be required in such cases, and the less stringent “preponderance of the evidence” standard will no longer apply. Police agencies will also have to track the forfeited assets and make annual reports detailing, among other things: the value of the property, how the property was acquired, and whether the owner of the assets was charged or convicted of a crime.
Illinois needs serious reform of its civil asset forfeiture laws. In a 2010 analysis, the Institute for Justice gave Illinois a grade of D in this matter, commenting:
Illinois has burdensome civil forfeiture laws for property owners, and these laws provide the bulk of forfeiture proceeds to law enforcement. The state need only show probable cause to forfeit your property. If you believe your property has been wrongly seized, you bear the burden of proving your innocence. Moreover, law enforcement keeps 90 percent [of] the proceeds for any sales of seized property, which creates a strong incentive for law enforcement to police for profit. Despite these broad laws, there is no requirement in Illinois that law enforcement account for forfeited currency and property, so we know little about its use under state law.
Property rights are too important to allow the government to take people’s money, cars or homes with barely any oversight or accountability. Other states such as Michigan have reformed their asset-forfeiture laws, and Illinois residents should demand the General Assembly do the same.