The Status of Civil Asset Forfeiture State Laws and Other Criminal Justice Reform Measures

By Ross Coker

With the tumultuous results of the general election, one issue that should not be pushed to the back is the reform of civil asset forfeiture laws to curb abuse and perverse incentives that harm innocent victims and the reputation of law enforcement.

Some states, including Georgia, enacted reforms prior to the general election. Others made important changes via ballot measures in November. Criminal justice reform advocates are hopeful positive changes will continue under a new Trump administration.

Below is a brief rundown of some notable state approaches to this issue, and their most recent status or change.

California: A recent reform bill requires a conviction before forfeiture of assets can take place in cases involving assets worth less than $40,000. The measure, signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, also tightens restrictions on when state law enforcement may profit from seizures made in federal cases in the state.

Florida: The state has sometimes been accused of sitting on the sidelines while other Southern states have made strides in various areas of criminal justice reform (including civil asset forfeiture reform), but there is movement. Criminal justice reform researchers at the Charles Koch Institute indicate Floridians are ready for reform, and it is a prime time to enact change.

Georgia: A 2015 law outlines how agencies must distribute, use and report seized assets and includes penalties for fraud, improper use and violations. This transparency measure does not change burdens of proof or other details of seizures, but simply relates to reporting requirements.

Iowa: An “interdiction team” specifically designed for civil asset forfeiture actions in the state of Iowa was disbanded recently, as the state simultaneously settled a case with two men whose cash was improperly seized from their car. As reported by the Iowa City Press-Citizen, the cash seized during a warrantless search was to be used for (legal) gambling in another state. While further reform beyond this case and dismantling the specific “task force” is not yet a reality in Iowa, critics of civil asset forfeiture abuse praised these actions.

Oklahoma: A pair of ballot measures that narrowly passed in November reduces penalties for certain lower-level drug crimes from felonies to misdemeanors. The Right on Crime organization’s website reported the benefits of such measures in other states.

Ohio: According to Reason Magazine, the legislature in Ohio is likely to pass early next week. The reforms resemble those that were recently passed in California, changing the requirement for cases involving assets of less than $25,000 to a criminal conviction before seizure is permitted. This aspect of the bill, as in California, is designed to remove “perverse incentives” for seizure while still allowing law enforcement to go after large drug trafficking rings and their assets.

Pennsylvania: A substantial reform bill made it to committee in Pennsylvania, but law enforcement concerns resulted in several of its features being gutted. Some groups, including as the ACLU, now deem the bill “inadequate” to enact any meaningful change or reform in the practice should the bill pass and become law.

New Mexico: While there has been no recent change in the state of forfeiture laws, but it is worth mentioning that the state is proceeding under its sweeping 2015 law that has all but removed the practice of civil asset forfeiture without arrest and conviction. In the narrow circumstances in which forfeiture is still allowed, there also are high transparency and reporting measures in place.

North Carolina: While New Mexico is worth examining for some of the most sweeping recent reform, North Carolina’s tough standards for civil asset forfeiture have been in the books for years. North Carolina requires an arrest and conviction with high standards of proof linking the property to the crime before seizure is allowed, but falls short on some transparency and reporting in cases where seizure does take place.

Ross Coker is Director of Research and Outreach at the Georgia Public Policy Foundation, an independent think tank that proposes market-oriented approaches to public policy to improve the lives of Georgians. Nothing written here is to be construed as necessarily reflecting the view of the Georgia Public Policy Foundation or as an attempt to aid or hinder the passage of any bill before the U.S. Congress or the Georgia Legislature.

© Georgia Public Policy Foundation (December 5, 2016). Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided the author and his affiliations are cited.