States crack down on government cash grabs

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States across the country are revising laws that allow police to seize a person’s cash and property without a conviction, following widespread complaints about agencies profiteering off such legislation, holdovers from the “Miami Vice” cocaine era.

Right now, 47 of the 50 states allow so-called civil asset forfeitures, with New Hampshire set to effectively end such practices, which allow property and currency to be seized even if it’s only suspected of being connected to a crime.

The changes in New Hampshire and elsewhere follow numerous, high-profile cases in which Americans have had their cash and other assets seized by state- and local-level police agencies without being convicted and of police departments appearing to aggressively pursue such cases to fill their coffers.

Among them is the 2013 case in which motorist Straughn Gorman had $167,000 in cash seized by the Nevada state police, which suspected him of transporting drugs but only issued him traffic tickets.

In another highly-publicized case, a small-town Mississippi police department built a $4.1 million training facility and bought a fleet of new police cruisers from such forfeitures.

The New Hampshire legislation, which Democratic Gov. Maggie Hassen has vowed to sign, would essentially require prosecutors trying to keep assets to first get a conviction, with few exceptions including a defendant’s death.

And it would require them to present stronger cases and harder evidence -- phased in the bill as “clear and compelling” evidence.

“I look forward to signing this bipartisan bill that … maintains drug forfeiture funds,” Hassen said last week.

However, New Hampshire is still involved in a federal program in which state or local police can transfer seized assets to the U.S. government, then get back a percentage of the haul.

The Justice Department recently stopped a program that such agencies appeared to be using to side-step state forfeiture laws and get back a heft percentage.

However, the department still has its “Equitable Sharing Program” in which agencies assisting the federal government in criminal cases can share in some of the seized assets, the agency said Wednesday.

Maryland, New Mexico and Nebraska have purportedly restricted their law enforcement agencies from participating in the federal program.

“New Hampshire would be wise to follow that lead,” Jason Snead, a Heritage Foundation policy analyst, recently told The Daily Signal. “Until it does, the impact of (its bill) is likely to be seriously blunted by law enforcement agencies that have every incentive to circumvent the new law and little compunction about doing so.”

North Carolina, New Mexico and Nebraska (once its law takes effect) are the only three states with no state forfeiture provision.

Michigan, Montana, New Mexico and Florida have recently revised their civil asset forfeiture laws.

In Florida, GOP Gov. Rick Scott recently signed a bipartisan bill that takes effect in July and will requires law enforcement agencies to arrest suspects before seizing their property under civil asset forfeiture laws.

In addition, the agencies will have to pay thousands in filing fees and bond postings should the owner be found not guilty. The law also makes recovering the property and related legal fees easier for the owner.

Cash can still be taken in Florida without an arrest but cannot be kept unless agencies prove “beyond a reasonable doubt” that it was connected to a crime.