An Institute for Justice report gave Idaho a D- grade for its poor civil asset forfeiture laws. The state received an almost failing grade because of its troublesome rules that guide the process by which government officials take a person’s property.
The Institute, a Virginia-based public interest law firm, said Idaho’s laws allow police to seize property too easily and don’t provide enough data when law enforcement officials do take property.
The damning report, “Policing for Profit,” states, “Under Idaho law, innocent owners wishing to retrieve seized property bear the burden of proving their innocence of any crimes to which their property has been linked.”
Police officials see asset forfeiture as an important tool to fight organized crime and drug dealers. In theory, the practice stops criminals from profiting from their crimes.
According to the The Heritage Foundation, civil asset forfeiture is:
a legal tool that allows law enforcement officials to seize property that they assert has been involved in certain criminal activity. In fact, the owner of the property doesn’t even need to be guilty of a crime: Civil asset forfeiture proceedings charge the property itself with involvement in a crime. This means that police can seize your car, home, money, or valuables without ever having to charge you with a crime. There are many, many stories of innocent people being stripped of their money and property by law enforcement.
The “Policing” report warned, “Idaho law enforcement agencies also enjoy a strong incentive to forfeit property because they are able to retain up to 100 percent of the proceeds.”
Further, the report highlights, “Because the Gem State has no statutory reporting requirements, law enforcement’s forfeiture activity is far from transparent.” In sum, Idaho police agencies aren’t required to report how often they take property, how much they seize, or why.
There’s room for consolation, though. From the “limited data” researchers could locate, Idaho police agencies “probably only modestly pursue civil forfeitures.”
Two unusual allies want lawmakers next year to follow the example set by New Mexico. The Idaho Freedom Foundation and the American Civil Liberties Union of Idaho said this week, to protect property rights, they want legislators to repeal civil asset forfeiture laws.
“It's heartbreaking to hear stories of people who have lost their property even when they've been cleared of, or worse, not even charged with, criminal wrongdoing,wrongdoing,” IFF President Wayne Hoffman said last week. “Idaho's civil asset forfeiture laws violate our fundamental rights to property and due process. Idaho lawmakers have a chance to solve this problem this winter.”
Kathy Griesmyer, the ACLU of Idaho’s Public Policy Strategist, is in agreement with Hoffman.
“What's most troubling is that an innocent individual could have [his or her] property forfeited without any criminal conviction, or connection to criminal activity,” Griesmyer said Thursday. “And when law enforcement is able to sell the forfeited property use the assets to fund their departments, it becomes a question of policing for profits over policing for public safety.”
When police seize property, Griesmyer added, individuals face huge obstacles to getting their property and belongings back. The cost to do so can include thousands of dollars in attorney fees.
“The process for reclaiming your property is difficult to navigate, with the burden of proof placed on the individual to go to court and assert their innocent owner claim,” she said.
A number of states, including Wyoming and Ohio, will explore asset forfeiture reform in the coming weeks. Michigan lawmakers recently reformed that state’s law setting higher bars for seizure and more transparency by police agencies.
New Mexico went the furthest earlier this year and repealed its forfeiture laws entirely.
Griesmyer said repeal of civil asset forfeiture laws would best serve Idahoans’ interests.
“We already have a law that allows for law enforcement agencies to seize and forfeit property of those convicted of a criminal charge,” she said. Civil asset forfeiture is “unnecessary, [and repeal] would protect the property rights of innocent Idahoans, and reduce the profit incentive for law enforcement to police our cities in a way that does not necessarily contribute to safer communities.”