How Extensive Will Forfeiture Reform Be?

Nick Zaiac Jan 19, 2016

Civil asset forfeiture—the seizing and retention of private property without due process of law or fair compensation—has long been decried by civil liberties proponents across the political spectrum. In Maryland, there is good news on civil asset forfeiture: reform is coming. The question is, how far will it go?

Last year, Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed a proposed civil asset forfeiture bill, SB 528, amid a package of criminal justice– related vetoes that included voting rights for ex-felons and decriminalization of marijuana paraphernalia. The bill was popular, as the Frederick News-Post reported Friday:

The measure passed the Senate with a 47-0 vote, and passed the House 89-51. Both tallies are enough to meet the three-fifths threshold to override the governor’s veto.

The important question is how extensive will the state’s latest attempt at forfeiture reform be? Friday a bipartisan group of senators introduced a new bill, SB 161, that laudably goes further than last year’s SB 528. Again from the News-Post:

The bill adds language to current state law so assets could be seized only if the property is claimed to be owned by a person convicted of illegal drug crimes and if the government proves the property’s connection to the crimes in court.

Reforming civil asset forfeiture is a popular, common-sense criminal justice reform and brings such programs in line with the notion that assets should only be seized if they’re connected to a crime. An August 2015 poll by YouGov and the Huffington Post found that 71 percent of respondents believed as much.

The reforms have merit both politically and constitutionally. They may also help bring police budgeting in line with the principles of sound government policy. Relying on large revenues from fines, fees, and confiscations—as some local governments across the nation do now—makes for bad budgeting and creates perverse incentives to over-police in search of additional money. Bad budget incentives are a problem. Nobody benefits when police are hunting for money instead of solving the most pressing crimes. It strains the relationship between police and the public. Worse, it takes public safety spending out of control of the voters who elect officials to set police budgets.

Sound policy calls for public safety spending be a result of true voter preferences. The policed should set the budget of the police. Civil asset forfeiture works against that principle.