Writing on the Wall: Civil Forfeiture’s Glory Days are Numbered
This week, the House of Representatives passed historic legislation to curb the abusive practice of civil forfeiture, or what has more commonly become known as “policing for profit.” This infamous administration of the law turns justice on its head, allowing law enforcement agencies to seize property they claim to be suspicious and forcing civilians to prove their innocence in court before they can regain possession of their property. For years, this law has allowed law enforcement to operate in the shadows, but the passage of HB2176 sponsored by Rep. Timothy Hill—–and the forthcoming passage of SB2144 by Senator Mark Green—will require those agencies to document the who, what, when, where, and why behind the confiscation of property and what became of that individual’s case.
Indeed, the House of Representatives’ vote was unanimous and sent a strong message to officers who’ve been abusing the practice for their agency’s personal profit: Your glory days are over, the shadows are receding, sunlight is upon you, and we are watching.
While Beacon championed this bill, from the genesis of the language to passage on the House floor, we must still do more to protect the innocent victims whose property was wrongfully confiscated. Earlier the same week, Rep. Martin Daniel brought legislation that would allow an innocent individual to recoup their seized property, plus costs, and attorneys fees, if it was wrongfully seized. Sadly for the people of our state, this bill failed by just one vote, following one committee member’s claim that the Department of Safety’s hastily provided rap sheet of forfeitures showed wrongful seizures were occurring in mere handfuls, rather than large batches, across the state.
Thus, the Civil Justice Subcommittee determined that there were not enough lives wrongfully harmed to matter. How many would it take for them to supply justice? We would submit that even one life ruined is one too many.
The victory of HB2176 cannot negate the failure of the legislature to make right the consequences of an abusive law, but it can serve as the vehicle for bold reform. No longer will we conveniently be told the “data isn’t there” when we want information on the forfeiture practices of law enforcement. More lawmakers are aware, engaged, and ready to act if they see abuse continue. Those who misuse their power at the expense of the vulnerable have been put on notice. As for us, we look forward to the day that this practice becomes, as Ronald Reagan once described, “a sad, bizarre chapter in history whose last pages even now are being written.”
*We would especially like to thank the following House and Senate members for their dedication to this issue: Rep. Alexander, Rep. Carter, Rep. Goins, Rep. T. Hill, Rep. Lundberg, Rep. Travis, Rep. Zachary, Sen. Beavers, Sen. Bell, Sen. Briggs, Sen. Green, Sen. Kelsey, Sen. Nicely, and Sen. Roberts.