Civil forfeiture remains a controversial issue in America since it’s “a process by which the government can take and sell your property without ever convicting, or even charging, you with a crime.” The procedures are civil, which means defendants do not receive the same protections given to criminal defendants.

Connecticut has put an end to this procedure when the legislature passed a law that bans civil forfeiture without a criminal conviction.

The Law

Democrat Governor Dannel Malloy signed HB 7146 into law on Monday after it “passed both the House and Senate without a single no vote.” Forbes reported:

Under the new law, in order to permanently confiscate property with civil forfeiture, the property must be first seized in connection to either a lawful arrest or a lawful search that results in an arrest. If prosecutors do not secure a guilty verdict, a plea bargain or a dismissal from finishing a pretrial diversion program, the government must return the property to its rightful owner. With the stroke of a pen, Connecticut now becomes the 14th state to require a criminal conviction for most or all forfeiture cases.

“Civil forfeiture is one of the most serious assaults on Americans’ private property rights,” Institute for Justice Senior Legislative Counsel Lee McGrath said. “The bill is a solid first step to ensure that innocent people do not lose their property to this use of 17th Century admiralty law applied to the 21st Century war on drugs.”

It keeps the forfeiture process as a “civil procedure with a lower threshold of proof.” From Reason:

In many cases, the person doesn’t even need to be charged with a crime. Instead the property itself is accused of being connected to criminal activity, and the owner of the property must (if he or she can afford it) prove the property wasn’t purchased or earned as a result of illicit activity.

While asset forfeiture is sold to the public as a way of separating criminal masterminds from the rewards of their illegal behavior, it is often used to seize small amounts of money and assets from low-level criminals (or alleged criminals). In Connecticut, the median forfeiture amounts for the past couple of years totaled less than $600. As this infographic from the Reason Foundation (the nonprofit that publishes this site) notes, it often costs more to hire a lawyer to fight asset forfeiture than the value of the property being seized.

Bill Missing a Few Pieces

Reason points out that the Equitable Sharing program at the “Department of Justice will allow police to bypass these new restrictions.” Reason continued:

The “Equitable Sharing” program lets local law enforcement agencies partner with the feds on raids and other police actions. The police then route the forfeitures through the federal government instead of state courts. This allows police in many states to keep more of the property or assets (up to 80 percent) under looser guidelines than they would under their state’s own forfeiture guidelines.

Some states who have reformed their asset forfeiture laws—Arizona, for example, just this April—have structured their changes in such a way that police cannot simply bypass them by turning to the federal government. Unfortunately, that component did not make it into Connecticut’s law.

The state will still allow “police and and prosecutors to collect 69.5 percent of the proceeds from forfeited property.”

Connecticut agencies still have the ability to “spend forfeiture money without any public oversight or accounting, leaving both the public and lawmakers (who are supposed to control the power of the purse) completely in the dark.”

[h/t to @galtsgirl]