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30 Years Ago, Maine Changed Its Law To Curb Forfeiture Abuse. Records Show Nothing Has Changed.


The thing about asset forfeiture is it's stocked full of perverse incentives. With a minimum of civil paperwork, law enforcement agencies can directly benefit from the property they seize and all without the hassle of having to deal with the uncertainty of criminal proceedings. The property is seized and its former owners are free to go. Minimum expenditure, maximum profit, and it's all totally legal.

The best way to reform civil asset forfeiture is to attack these incentives. Some states, like Maine, have done this by forcing law enforcement agencies to deposit forfeiture proceeds into the general fund. Highway robbery now enriches the entire state, which won't be much comfort to victims of forfeiture programs. But there should be fewer victims of forfeiture now that the seizing agency doesn't have a personal stake in the forfeiture.

Should be. The solution looks good on paper. The execution, however, leaves something to be desired. (via the ACLU)

[D]espite Maine’s forfeiture law’s potential to curb corruption, the state’s Office of Fiscal and Program Review has confirmed that — aside from a single deposit of $4,335 made by the Public Safety Department in 2010 — no recent proceeds from property forfeitures have gone into Maine’s general fund.

The provisions to direct seized cash and property into the state general fund were originally drafted in 1987 and amended in 1999. It is not clear how long this law has not been complied with by state public safety officials.

Well, from the looks of it, the law has not been complied with for most of the last 30 years. Maybe record keeping doesn't extend that far back, but the fiscal office offered up no evidence suggesting it was complied with more frequently a couple of decades ago.

It is clear agencies are still directly benefiting from civil asset forfeiture. To route around state restrictions, local agencies are bringing in the feds to take advantage of a sharing program that's not subject to local laws. Federal records show state agencies have taken home $13 million in funds from federal adoption of forfeitures since 2000.

The lack of contribution to the state's general fund shouldn't be taken to mean state agencies have abandoned non-federal-assisted forfeiture. A public records request by the Institute for Justice obtained data showing state agencies are still racking up about $250,000 a year in cash forfeitures alone. That should have made its way to the state fund, but there's no records showing that ever happened.

Rule changes mean nothing if no one's willing to enforce them. The state legislature made an effort thirty years ago to reform forfeiture, but for the last decade-plus, no one in the state has done anything to ensure agencies are complying with the rules. Law enforcement agencies aren't going to hold themselves accountable and they'd still like to be the largest -- if not the only -- beneficiary of seized property. That's exactly what appears to be happening here. Laws mean nothing if they're not enforced -- a truism law enforcement agencies are keenly aware of.


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