Montana governor signs bill to protect residents from asset forfeiture

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Montana Gov. Steve Bullock signed a bill to reform civil asset forfeiture Tuesday.

The legislature passed the bill last month and Tuesday was the last day the governor could sign or veto the legislation.

Civil asset forfeiture allows police to take and keep your property if they suspect it is connected to criminal activity– all without convicting or charging you with a crime. The new law enacts major reforms in the practice.

The law now requires a criminal conviction before forfeiture of property, which is a key element for reform advocates. Police can still take your property if they suspect it’s tied to criminal activity, but without a conviction, they must return it.

Even when there is a conviction, police must show by “clear and convincing” evidence the property is tied to the criminal activity in order to keep it, a significantly higher burden of proof than the previous “probable cause” stipulation.

“Thanks to Governor Bullock’s signing today of HB 463, the due process protections that our founders envisioned when authoring the 5th Amendment are now much stronger,” Montana Representative Kelly McCarthy, who helped lead the reform, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “Innocent Montanans do not have to fear losing their assets to the state when they’ve not committed a crime and those facing forfeiture are now assured fair treatment in Montana court rooms.”

The law also shifts the burden of proof to the government in situations when property is forfeited by someone who is not the owner.

This means that if a friend takes someone’s live savings without permission and police seize it while they are committing a crime, then the owner has a much better chance of getting that money back from police.

“With the enactment of this legislation, Montana has taken the first step to reform its forfeiture laws,” Lee McGrath, Legislative Counsel for the Institute for Justice, told The Daily Caller News Foundation.  “Governor Bullock’s signature on HB 463 means that no person acquitted in criminal court in Montana will lose his property through forfeiture in civil court.”

McCarthy spearheaded the effort for reform. He said he was moved by media reports of abuse.

“After looking into Montana laws and working with the Institute for Justice, we found that our laws provided no greater property rights protections than those states who were identified with rampant abuse, (Texas, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, Virginia, etc.),” he told TheDCNF. “From that time I began meeting with stakeholders and working on the bill.”

Advocates say the work of reform is not quite done in the state.

“Montana’s next step is to do what New Mexico did in April—end civil forfeiture completely and replace it with criminal forfeiture,” McGrath told TheDCNF. “Then the property and due process rights of all Montanans will be protected.”

Legislatures in other states, including Michigan and California are considering reforms. New Mexico already passed sweeping reforms. (RELATED: The 7 Most Egregious Examples Of Civil Asset Forfeiture) 

This was in part a response to widespread reports of forfeiture abuses by law enforcement.

“We crafted this legislation so it would not interfere with our police agencies’ abilities to get drugs and the tools of the trade off the street; so there are no changes to the seizure laws,” McCarthy told TheDCNF. “We did want to protect to protect Montanans and those traveling through Montana from the abuse of civil asset forfeiture that has plagued other states.”

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