Civil asset forfeiture continues to be curbed by legislatures around the country. Belatedly realizing the harm done to citizens by opportunistic law enforcement, lawmakers have been engaged in serious reform efforts over the past few years. Some have fallen apart on the way to approval, thanks to harmful concessions to powerful law enforcement lobbies. Other have made it through intact, potentially ending years of abuse.
Thirteen states have already added conviction requirements for forfeitures, all but eliminating the "civil" process that cuts property owners out almost completely. Connecticut has just become the fourteenth.
Late yesterday, Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy signed HB 7146, which will require a criminal conviction to permanently confiscate property. Unlike criminal forfeiture, which targets the property owner and occurs only after a conviction, civil forfeiture sues the property itself and allows the government to permanently keep property without charging anyone with a crime.
HB 7146 will split the difference by requiring a conviction in criminal court as a prerequisite to a Connecticut state’s attorney litigating the forfeiture in civil court. The bill previously passed the House and the Senate without a single vote cast against it.
Making the law even better is the government being unable to seize anything without an accompanying arrest. From there, it must obtain a conviction to guarantee its control of the property. It must present evidence the property was used in a crime or was the proceeds of a crime, regardless of the conviction. If it can't prove this, or the arrest fails to result in a criminal conviction, the state must return the property within 14 days. This saves citizens the trouble and expense of having to litigate the return of seized property.
On the downside, the law still allows law enforcement agencies to directly profit from forfeitures, giving them control of 70% of the proceeds with minimal oversight. This increases the risk of people having the book thrown at them in court to ensure prosecutors walk away with at least a plea deal, when there's money/property on the line.
But it is a major improvement over the state's original statutes, which had resulted in 2/3 of the state's proceedings against "guilty" property being completely untied from any arrests or convictions of property owners.