Civil Forfeiture in the Granite State

Snow did not deter audience members from joining the Charles Koch Institute in Manchester, New Hampshire, for a conversation on civil asset forfeiture in the Granite State. Panelists Gilles Bissonnette, Robert Peccola, and Vikrant Reddy joined moderator John Stossel in front of a full house to discuss how states like New Hampshire might better protect the property of their citizens.

Peccola, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, is not lacking for stories of people who have faced lengthy and costly legal battles to regain property that was taken under civil asset forfeiture laws: Families have had their homes seized, students have had their life savings taken, and small business owners have had their accounts drained. All of these people have faced losing entirely the things they worked hard to gain without being convicted of a crime.

Peccola discussed the perverse incentives behind civil asset forfeiture: “It’s a good point not to disparage law enforcement because they are doing dangerous jobs. The problem is bad incentives.” Because law enforcement can often keep the property they seize, it is unsurprising that they would use civil asset forfeiture more often than not to fund their budgets.

For Bissonnette, legal director of the ACLU of New Hampshire, a lack of accountability compounds the incentive issues that Peccola highlighted. Because law enforcement can spend and use the money and property they seize with little to no oversight, civil asset forfeiture becomes an attractive tool to pad police budgets. Bissonnette maintained that while increased budgets may be justifiable for police forces, they should use legislative means to achieve that goal, which would provide more accountability for how funds were being spent.

Reddy, senior research fellow at the Charles Koch Institute, elaborated on Bissonnette’s discussion of accountability by giving examples of how certain police forces have used funds seized through this practice, including purchasing a margarita machine and throwing parties.

Furthermore, this lack of accountability is reinforced by the legal process for citizens to regain their money and property. As Bissonnette pointed out, the burden of proof falls on people who are trying to reclaim their property, and seizures often go uncontested because they cannot afford the legal costs. For Bissonnette, civil asset forfeiture is “putting the cart before the horse,” since people are penalized and their property is taken before they are charged with a crime.

Yet the future of civil asset forfeiture reform is not hopeless. Reddy proposed that while larger reforms would be preferable, even incremental changes—like easing the burden of proof on people trying to reclaim property or prohibiting law enforcement from keeping the property they seize—would begin to help alleviate civil asset forfeiture abuses.

Reddy, along with the other panelists, also maintained that while the Department of Justice’s recent suspension of equitable sharing could reduce the amount of property seized, states would have to examine and reform their own civil asset forfeiture laws to truly put an end to this practice. Recent examples of such action include New Mexico’s abolishment of civil asset forfeiture and New Hampshire’s House Bill 636, which would also completely eliminate civil forfeiture.

As the evening wrapped up, one attendee asked whether research had been done regarding how civil asset forfeiture can have a corrupting influence on police, perhaps leading officers to underreport their takings. To the knowledge of the panelists, no such research has been done, but Reddy also stressed that research in this area has been limited, citing the Institute for Justice’s “Policing for Profit” report as one of the only comprehensive sources for data.

In order to continue to explore and find solutions to civil asset forfeiture, the Charles Koch Foundation invites requests proposals for research regarding this topic and others related to criminal justice and policing reform.

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