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Elain Ellerbe | August 16, 2017
Last year, in one of the most inclusive studies on the state’s use of civil asset forfeiture, the Institute for Justice (IJ) released its second version of Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture. The report provides an interactive map of the United States and includes a scorecard on each state.
In the study, Louisiana earned a D+ grade. This near failing mark is predominately because Louisiana’s civil asset forfeiture law does not require a conviction before the government can forfeit ownership of your property. The government only has to show, by a preponderance of the evidence (in layman’s terms “more likely than not”) that the property is associated with some type of criminal activity (or the proceeds of criminal activity) for the forfeiture to take place. Additionally, innocent property owners have the burden to prove they knew nothing of the criminal act purportedly involving their personal property.
The report goes on to delineate how forfeiture proceeds are divided up among law enforcement and other court related agencies. The report reveals that in Louisiana, law enforcement retains 80 percent of the forfeiture revenue, causing a potential conflict of interest. The remaining 20 percent goes to a special criminal court fund, creating another serious conflict of interest by allowing the very body that orders the forfeiture to receive benefit from the proceeds.
Among the court players that can receive monies from this fund include judges’ offices, clerks of court, and district attorneys. With Louisiana forfeiting more than $99 million between 2000 and 2014 – with over 88 percent resulting from cash forfeitures – this is big money.
The law requires that each district attorney must file an annual report with the Legislature providing details on property seized and how the property is distributed after forfeiture. These reports, however, lack key details such as whether any criminal charges accompanied the forfeiture. To add to the questionable transparency practices, the reports are not compiled in any aggregate form, nor are they made available online. This means anyone who is interested in accessing a file must first complete a formal, confusing, and cumbersome Louisiana Public Records Law request.
Across the United States, legislators are reigning in the use of asset forfeiture without ample due process of law. It’s time for Louisiana’s lawmakers to protect its citizens property as other conservative states have.