An attempt to rein in one of the state’s most troublesome acts is gaining steam in the Maine Legislature.
A new bill aimed at strengthening individual rights against civil asset forfeiture passed votes in the Maine House and Senate last week. LD 1521, sponsored by Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham (R-Winter Harbor), faces one more vote in each chamber before it can be sent to Gov. Janet Mills’ desk.
Under current law, individuals must only be alleged of a crime in order for law enforcement to seize their property.
The new bill requires that for property to be forfeited to the state, the owner must be convicted of a crime in which the property was involved. It also prohibits a law enforcement agency or other entity from transferring or referring the seized property to a federal agency.
A third requirement of the bill is that records of forfeited property must be posted by the Department of Public Safety (DPS) on a publicly accessible website.
An amendment to the bill added exceptions to the requirement of conviction for criminal forfeiture like, for instance, situations with a plea agreement or if the defendant was deported, among others.
The amendment also outlines the right to a prompt hearing after assets have been seized for either the defendant or any person interested in the seized property.
If passed and signed into law by Gov. Mills, such a reform would be a major victory for civil rights and the protection of individual liberty.
Under current Maine law, the DPS is required to give quarterly reports on all assets seized through civil forfeiture to the Office of Fiscal and Program Review (OFPR). In practice, though, that’s not how it works.
According to a 2018 report from the Maine Beacon, there is no record of such a quarterly report ever being submitted to OFPR.
Further, the law requires that any seized money is deposited into Maine’s general fund, not held by the individual police departments.
The same report found that Maine’s law enforcement bucked this requirement. Maine’s OFPR confirmed that, other than one deposit of $4,335 that was made by DPS in 2010, no recent funds seized through property forfeitures have gone into Maine’s general fund.
As Rep. Faulkingham said in his testimony in support of the bill, it “completely ends civil forfeiture, and moves all forfeiture to the criminal forfeiture category.”
According to the Washington Post, in 2014, civil asset forfeitures amounted to more total losses than the amount of property stolen by burglars.
The passage of LD 1521 would deliver on the all-important right guaranteed under the Fifth Amendment: “No person shall… be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”
“Due process” is the key phrase here. The fact that an individual must only be alleged to have committed a crime to have their property seized by the state is an affront to the civil liberties guaranteed to all of us under the Constitution.
LD 1521 is Maine’s most meaningful civil asset forfeiture reform in years, and if it passes, it will put an end to the unjust practice of seizing property from an individual who has not been convicted of a crime.