A bill that would strengthen protections against civil asset forfeiture, sponsored by Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham (R-Winter Harbor), became law on Tuesday without Gov. Janet Mills’ signature. Passed by the Maine Legislature on June 30, LD 1521 specifies that police can only seize an individual’s property if that person is convicted of a crime in which that piece of property was involved.
The bill originally passed both the House of Representatives and the Senate by a margin larger than the two-thirds majority required to overcome a veto, so it’s possible the Legislature would have overridden the governor if she objected. A motion of “ought not to pass” failed in the House of Representatives by a vote of 11-129, and a second vote on a motion of “ought to pass as amended” went under the hammer without a roll call vote. The Senate passed the bill by a vote of 33-0.
LD 1521 also makes several changes to civil asset forfeiture statutes that apply to firearms. As currently written, Maine statute puts the burden of recovering seized property on the owner. To recover seized property, an owner must appear in court prior to the declaration of forfeiture and satisfy the court, by the preponderance of the evidence, that he or she had a possessory interest in the weapon at the time it was seized, which excludes every person at the site it was seized; had no knowledge of the crime at the site at which it was seized; and had not given any person involved in committing a crime permission to possess or use the weapon.
LD 1521 changes this process and puts the burden of justifying property forfeiture on the state. It prohibits the state from seizing firearms unless it “satisfies the court, by a preponderance of evidence, that the owner of the firearm or dangerous weapon was convicted of a crime in which the firearm or dangerous weapon was involved.”
LD 1521 also removes civil asset forfeiture protections from computers. Under current Maine statute, computers cannot be forfeited if the owner proves they had no knowledge of a crime they were used to commit or if they were used to commit a crime without the owner’s permission. LD 1521 removes this protection.
LD 1521 further prohibits law enforcement agencies, prosecuting authorities, or state, county or municipal agencies from entering into an agreement to transfer seized property to federal agencies, unless the seized property includes an excess of $100,000 in federal currency.
Further protections exist in the law’s requirement that law enforcement and state agencies keep a public record of forfeited property. LD 1521 requires the Department of Public Safety keep publicly searchable records of seized property, which include the name of the court that ordered property forfeited, the date on which the property was ordered forfeited, and a description of each item ordered forfeited.
The law also stipulates that the protections against seizure don’t apply if property is forfeited as part of a plea bargain. The court can also waive the requirement that an individual be convicted before their property is seized and forfeited if it can show that a defendant died, was deported, abandoned the property or fled the jurisdiction.
LD 1521 also creates new rules that govern post-seizure proceedings. The changes to law stipulate that a defendant or individual whose property has been seized has a right to a prompt post-seizure hearing. A court can order the return of seized property if it finds the seizure was invalid, a criminal charge was not filed, the property is not required to be held as evidence or the final judgment will likely be settled in favor of the claimant.