Time for Illinois to end civil asset forfeiture

Michigan, Minnesota and now Nebraska have reformed civil asset forfeiture – it’s time Illinois followed suit.

By Bryant Jackson-Green 
Illinois Policy

Nebraska has just become the latest state to end civil asset forfeiture, the practice by which law enforcement can take private property from people suspected of wrongdoing – even if they haven’t been convicted of a crime. Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts signed a comprehensive reform bill, which had been approved by an overwhelming majority of Nebraska’s legislature April 19.

The new law requires that Nebraska law enforcement obtain a criminal conviction before seizing private assets. It also requires Nebraska’s auditor of public reports to issue an annual report detailing the seizure, including information on when and where the seizure took place, the type of property that was taken, the crime the owner was charged with and the value of the property.

Illinois would do well to follow Nebraska’s example – and that of other states, includingMichigan, Minnesota and New Mexico – and reform its asset forfeiture laws, too.

Right now, Illinois allows police to take and permanently keep private property they suspect was somehow related to criminal activity, but without having to prove the owner of that property used it in a crime, or even charging the property owner with any criminal offense. It then falls to the owner – if he or she has the financial resources – to challenge the seizure in court and prove the property wasn’t used in illegal activity.

The process for contesting these seizures provides very few protections for property owners. The standard of proof in Illinois required to seize property by forfeiture is the relatively low “preponderance of the evidence” standard. Someone contesting a seizure in court (except for houses and land) must put down a bond of either $100 or 10 percent of the value of the property, whichever is greater. If the person challenging the forfeiture loses, he or she must give up the entire bond and pay the full cost of the forfeiture proceeding; but even if the person wins, he or she must relinquish the amount of the bond, meaning a completely innocent owner of property that was forfeited will never be made whole. Even worse, innocent owners bear the burden of proving they were not involved in the criminal activity associated with the property.

For these reasons, Illinois received a D- for the quality of its protections for property owners by the Institute for Justice.

Exactly how much money is Illinois taking in through civil asset forfeiture? The available data doesn’t distinguish between criminal and civil asset forfeiture, and Illinois does not maintain detailed, publicly available data on how much is seized and how the funds are spent. But information obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests reveals that between 2009 and 2013, Illinois law enforcement took in over $113 million worth of property.

Illinois seized over 45,000 pieces of personal property during this period.

But Illinois also collects even more forfeited funds through equitable sharing programs with the federal government, where local law enforcement collaborates with the federal government on a seizure and keeps part of the proceeds. Illinois took in over $186 million from the Department of Justice’s equitable sharing program between 2000 and 2013, and another $36 million from the Treasury Department.

Illinois needs to rein in the abuses inherent in civil asset forfeiture. Mandating that law enforcement publicly report on how it acquires and uses forfeited funds would be a step forward, but it is not enough. Law enforcement should not be able to take any property without a conviction or admission of guilt – which means ending civil asset forfeiture altogether.

Property rights are too important to allow the government to routinely violate them with little oversight or accountability. Illinoisans should follow Nebraska’s lead, and demand the General Assembly put a stop to it.

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