House Judiciary Committee guts asset forfeiture bill
The House Judiciary Committee moved a stripped-down version of a civil asset forfeiture reform bill to the Finance Committee on April 4, with members saying they’d rather pass something palatable this session than nothing at all.
The bill, introduced by Rep. Tammie Wilson, R-North Pole, would have overhauled Alaska’s criminal asset forfeiture laws, ranked as some of the worst in the nation.
Judiciary Committee chair Rep. Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, was a bill co-sponsor and expressed a deep appreciation for the bill during hearings along with fellow committee members, but introduced a committee substitute in the last 10 minutes of an April 4 meeting that removed many of the bill’s reforms.
LeDoux’s staff said her office had a meeting the morning of April 4, during which they decided to strip down the bill, keeping only one clause that abolishes “in rem” forfeitures, or non-criminal forfeitures. It leaves criminal forfeitures untouched. Staff said Wilson and her co-sponsors plan to redraft the bill in the interim.
“I think that this bill is in good form for the end of this session,” said LeDoux at the end of the hearing. “I still have some very real problems with the idea that someone’s property can be seized prior to a conviction of guilt. But we have next session to consider that.”
Alaska’s civil asset forfeiture laws leave room for improvement; according to the Institute for Justice, a government watchdog group, Alaska gets a D+ for its current laws.
According to Alaska statutes, law enforcement can seize the property related to a crime on reasonable suspicion that it aided in, or is otherwise evidence of, that particular crime. The property being seized by law enforcement does not have to be evidence, nor does the state have to wait until a criminal conviction or even a criminal charge for seizure.
Courts provide recourse for asset seizures. The property owner has to file to have property returned within a specific time frame; the court sets the burden of proof on the defendant to prove the property’s disconnection from the crime.
If the property’s owner doesn’t file to have it returned, or if the court rejects the appeal, law enforcement can raise revenue by selling the property.
Under Wilson’s bill, the state would have to wait until sentencing to seize property. Law enforcement would also have to submit an annual report detailing its seizures.
LeDoux and other attorneys on the Judiciary Committee appeared appalled by the current statutes regarding asset seizures, and sharply cross examined several law enforcement representatives who testified before the committee on March 31.
Judiciary Committee members implied or outright gushed about supporting the bill’s purpose.
“I love the concept of this bill,” said LeDoux. “I just want to get the bill right. I’m going to continue it.”
Cash seizures and airplane seizures came to represent the issue during the hearing. Under current criminal prosecution procedures, law enforcement may seize cash and keep it as partial evidence of potential drug activity.
LeDoux asked acting Major Jeff Laughlin of the Alaska State Troopers why that actual cash needed to be seized.
“Why couldn’t you do the same thing with photocopying the money?” she said. “Why do you need it actually for evidence, as opposed to a photocopy of the money?”
“It’s evidence of a crime,” Laughlin said, and answered with a rhetorical question. “Couldn’t we ask the same question of many of the items we seize?”
LeDoux didn’t think the question was rhetorical.
“You probably could,” she said, “and that’s kind of what we’re doing.”
Committee members said they understand the statute allowing law enforcement to take such actions. Rather, they had philosophical problems with current laws, not procedural ones.
The state, LeDoux said, has no right to do what any private citizen filing suit against another wouldn’t be able to do.
“I really don’t see why you should be in such a different position than any other plaintiff who thinks they’ve got this really good case and don’t want the defendant to be able to hide their assets,” she said. “I just have a real problem with the idea that you can seize something you don’t actually need for evidence before a finding from a judge and a jury that somebody has committed a crime beyond a reasonable doubt.”
Among problems with the bill, Alaska Department of Law Criminal Division Director John Skidmore said it could bog the system down with hearings and filings that will add more time and expense to routine criminal prosecutions.
Skidmore said there “may be horror stories” about delays in property returns, but that the for the most part the courts release property in a timely manner when the appeal is approved.
Anchorage attorney Kevin Fitzgerald, a civil asset forfeiture reform advocate, said law enforcement fears of endless report filing and litigation amounted to playing “Chicken Little.”
Civil asset forfeiture was born from federal 1980s drug war policies, intended as a deterrent factor to seize drug kingpin assets. As law enforcement seized more and more property and money, media and civil liberties groups came to view civil asset forfeiture laws as a revenue-generating source that law enforcement abuses.
Federal law enforcement seized $5 billion through civil asset forfeiture in 2014, according to the Washington Post.
Civil liberties groups and watchdog organizations including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Center for American Justice, and the Institute for Justice lobby for changes.
Reforms have picked up steam in several states.
The same day LeDoux passed the stripped bill from committee, Florida Gov. Rick Scott signed a bill that would have required many of the same overhaul’s as Wilson’s original bill. In 2015, a similar bill passed rapidly through the New Mexico Legislature. On March 31, the Tennessee House passed a bill requiring law enforcement to provide detailed reports of asset seizures.
DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected].