Montana can count itself in the growing group of states taking on civil asset forfeiture less than a month after New Mexico passed its lauded comprehensive reform. And though Montana’s legislation is not as exhaustive as New Mexico’s, it is nevertheless a giant step in the right direction.
Civil asset forfeiture is a controversial proceeding in which law enforcement authorities are allowed to confiscate property suspected of being used in a crime without a warrant or conviction. Property owners are then left with the options of hiring expensive legal help (for protracted civil proceedings) or writing off the lost property.
The property is then kept by the law enforcement agency that performed the seizure and can be used at their discretion: some argue that this creates an improper incentive for the agencies.
The new regime in Montana does away with the warrantless forfeiture component of the problem. HB 463—the enacted measure—will require a criminal conviction before the property is forfeited. Meaning that in order for the police to keep and use the money, they have to prove its connection with the crime.
The burden of proof on the government, and increasing the standard to “clear and convincing evidence,” gives innocent property owners expanded protections from overzealous forfeiture programs.
Civil asset Forfeiture has seen a dramatic increase of attention from both state legislators and the federal government. Montana has proven that it is prepared to put the interests of its citizens first and foremost. Hopefully this positive trend will continue to expand Fifth Amendment rights across the nation.