Civil forfeiture laws enable law enforcement agencies, like state and local police forces, to seize any property that is suspected of being involved with criminal or illegal activities. In order to do this, the authorities do not need to prove the owner of said property guilty of anything. In many cases, police has seized money from people for carrying what they considered “too much” of it, saying that it could be money from the sale of drugs. However, the owner of the money does not need to get arrested or charged with anything.
The burden in cases of civil forfeiture has always been on the property owner to prove that property’s “innocence” through the court system. However, before that even happens, authorities can then liquidate that property and, in many states, keep the profit and use it at their discretion. Many see civil judicial forfeiture as the single most important threat to property rights across the United States. But with attention recently focused on this issue, states like Montana and New Mexico have begun enacting laws to reform civil forfeiture laws.
As of July 1st, both Montana and New Mexico will see two major reforms go into force. In Montana, the government and its enforcement agencies are various levels, are now required to first obtain a criminal conviction before they can seize and liquidate a person’s property. This also goes as far as turning the burden of proof unto the state and not the person who had their property seized because it was used by someone else to commit a crime. Prior to this, if your neighbor was suspected of using your car to commit a crime, the state had the power to seize it and sell it without accusing you, the owner, of participating in the criminal act. Profit from the sale could then be pocketed by the agency involved.
New Mexico, on the other hand, went a lot further than Montana in its blow to civil forfeiture as we know it – it abolished it. Law enforcement agencies can only seize property after a criminal conviction has been obtained and instead of pocketing the profit, the money will be deposited into a general fund.
The Institute for Justice, which has been leading the fight for reform of civil forfeiture laws, hopes that these landmark reforms in Montana and New Mexico will continue to pave the way for more reforms across the country and, ultimately, at the federal level. Civil forfeiture creates a financial incentive for law enforcement agencies to continue to seize property. In many cases, money seized by local authorities have been used to pay for entertainment and other nonessential things. Many supporters of civil forfeiture law reform believe that the money could also be put to better use, such as going toward education funds across the states. The following Institute for Justice video provides an excellent overview of what civil forfeiture is and why reform is needed: