Civil asset forfeiture has long been the target of increasing scrutiny, from both the left and right.
Representatives Jamie Raskin and Tim Walberg recently reintroduced the Fifth Amendment Integrity Restoration Act, also known as the Fair Act, which is a bipartisan bill that would raise the standard for seizing property on the federal level. The bill would reform the IRS structuring statue to protect the innocent small business owners and would increase transparency and congressional oversight of civil asset forfeiture practices. However, this would only pertain to federal civil asset forfeiture, leaving states and local jurisdictions to decide their own civil asset forfeiture policies.
Since 2014, 37 states have reformed their civil asset forfeiture laws, and three new states, New Mexico, Nebraska, and Maine, have abolished civil asset forfeiture altogether, bringing the total to four states, including North Carolina since 1985. Of the states that have reformed their civil asset forfeiture laws, 16 now require a conviction in a criminal court to forfeit most or all types of property, 16 states require the government to bear the burden of proof, 27 states have instituted new reporting procedures, and eight states have closed the equitable-sharing loophole.
States that have recently moved towards reforming their civil asset forfeiture laws include Massachusetts, the Senate of which passed an overhaul of the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws in 2022. The bill would prevent law enforcement agencies from seizing assets worth more than $250, allow defendants to have legal representation in forfeiture cases, and would raise the standards and disclosure requirements for civil asset forfeiture. The bill remains pending in the state legislature.
State Senator Cynthia Creem (D-Newton) said: “Those affected are disproportionately people on the margins, who will not easily recover from losing access to a family car, money for groceries or even in some cases their primary residence.”
On the other hand, Michigan has rolled back positive civil asset forfeiture reforms, in the name of preventing drug trafficking at airports. HB4631 signed by Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, allowed an exception to a criminal conviction required for civil asset forfeiture for assets worth more than $20,000 when seized at airports.
Institute for Justice Senior Attorney Dan Alban said: “Allowing authorities to take air travelers’ cash without a criminal conviction, simply because they have a large sum of money, is a blatant violation of their rights.”
The federal government has taken the initiative to reform civil asset forfeiture within their authority, this should remind states that have not updated their laws to follow suit and protect their citizens’ property rights.