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With Gov. Bullock’s Signature, New Montana Bill Ends Civil Asset Forfeiture

Joining in the building momentum nationwide to change asset forfeiture practices, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock signed a bill yesterday that institutes sweeping reforms that will protect innocent citizen’s civil liberties.

Passed by overwhelming majorities of both chambers of the state legislature, House Bill 463 effectively does away with civil asset forfeiture, and instead requires that an individual be convicted of a crime before any such seizure of property can take place. Previously, private property could be confiscated merely on the suspicion that a crime took place, denying the due process rights and presumption of innocence of citizens:

“Thanks to Governor Bullock’s signing today of HB 463, the due process protections that our founders envisioned when authoring the 5th Amendment are now much stronger,” said Montana Representative Kelly McCarthy, who spearheaded the reform. “Innocent Montanans do not have to fear losing their assets to the state when they’ve not committed a crime and those facing forfeiture are now assured fair treatment in Montana court rooms.”

In addition to this initial requirement that an individual be convicted of a crime, the bill also provides other strong protections for citizens:

  • It requires that the state provide notice to the individual of an impending seizure;
  • Provides for a pretrial hearing to determine the validity of the seizure;
  • Calls for a hearing upon conviction to delineate whether the property must be forfeited;
  • Provides exceptions for innocent owners and/or others with a material interest in the property;
  • Also, the state must provide proof by clear and convincing evidence that the property in question was used in the commission of a crime.

Civil asset forfeiture represents a serious affront to constitutional protections that citizens have long since enjoyed. It presumes a person, and by extension, their property, guilty of a crime before ever having been convicted or even charged of one. It also turns due process rights under the 5th Amendment on their head, putting the burden on the individual themselves to prove their innocence, rather than on the state who must prove the individual’s guilt.

There has been an increasing recognition among the states—New Mexico Gov. Susan Martinez recently signed a reform bill in that state as well–that asset forfeiture is ensnaring the innocent into practices that were originally conceived of to target illicit behavior. Reform bills like these return the onus of proving guilt back onto the state, and protects the civil liberties of innocent citizens.

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