Share this article
Michael Haugen | April 20, 2016
In a boon to innocent property owners in the Cornhusker State, Nebraska has become the 10th state in the country to require a criminal conviction in all or most cases before law enforcement agencies may perfect a forfeiture proceeding.
Asset forfeiture is the process by which law enforcement agencies can seize and keep property suspected of being involved in criminal activity. While purported to be a crime-fighting tool, the process has blossomed beyond this original purpose, whereby even innocent property owners—who often times aren’t even charged with a crime—have been ensnared into a net cast too wide. As a result, modern civil forfeiture has become a multi-billion dollar windfall for law enforcement agencies nationwide in the past several decades, who have overleveraged themselves on a practice at odds with constitutional liberties.
“Nebraska Gov. Pete Ricketts signed a bill on Tuesday that eliminates civil forfeiture, which allows law enforcement to seize and keep property without filing charges or securing criminal convictions. The bill, LB 1106, passed the unicameral legislature last week by a vote of 38 to 8…Nebraska joins just nine other states that require a criminal conviction as a prerequisite for most or all forfeiture cases. Following North Carolina and New Mexico, Nebraska is now the third state largely without civil forfeiture.”
Nebraska’s steps to protect innocent property owners this week is especially significant in that they’ve also curbed the ability of local and state authorities to circumvent more restrictive state law in favor of the federal government’s comparatively lax equitable sharing standards—something that most other states who’ve passed conviction requirements have nonetheless come up short on recently. To curtail this practice, LB 1106 now prohibits the transfer or referral of assets to federal authorities unless the value exceeds $25,000, the assets are seized by a federal agent themselves, and the individual from whom the assets are seized is subject to federal prosecution.
A provision banning law enforcement agencies from also entering into agreements with federal authorities to conduct forfeiture litigation was wisely added as an amendment to LB 1106, providing further instruction under law that forfeitures occurring in Nebraska are to be adjudicated on Nebraska’s terms.
In addition to a new conviction requirement, LB 1106 also requires both law enforcement and prosecuting attorneys to file written reports of seized property to the Auditor of Public Accounts—including information on what types of property were seized, what their value is, what crime is alleged, and the disposition of the property seized through the forfeiture process. Obtaining such information has traditionally been a difficult hurdle to clear in other states seeking reform, who frequently have little to no current information as to the pervasiveness of forfeiture proceedings, and thereby can’t provide transparency and accountability to the public.
Nebraska’s move this week on civil forfeiture–hot on the heels of Florida’s recent reforms–is a strong signal to other states as to the importance of maintaining the integrity of its citizen’s property rights, and just as importantly, realigns law enforcement priorities towards the original stated purpose of forfeiture: that it be used to fight criminal activity, proven as such through the dictates of due process and the rule of law.