Pubdate: Sat, 23 Apr 2016
Source: Washington Post (DC)
Copyright: 2016 The Washington Post Company
Author: Christopher Ingraham


Good news for Nebraska residents worried about state and local police 
taking their stuff when they haven't been convicted of any crime: 
They can't do it anymore.

This week, Nebraska's Republican governor, Pete Ricketts, signed into 
law a bill that all but abolishes the practice of civil asset 
forfeiture in that state.

Civil asset forfeiture allows authorities to seize cash and property 
from someone they suspect of committing a crime. In most states, and 
under federal law, authorities may get to keep the proceeds 
regardless of whether the person is ever convicted, or even charged, 
with a crime.

But that's no longer the case in Nebraska. Now, authorities must 
obtain a criminal conviction before they can seize a person's 
belongings. Nebraska is just the 10th state to require this level of 
protection for property owners. In the 40 other states plus the 
District of Columbia, police can still take and keep an individual's 
property without a criminal conviction - and in many cases, without 
even charging someone with a crime.

In six states- Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New 
Mexico-and-Vermont-changes to require conviction before forfeiture 
were passed just in the past two years, a sign of growing public 
unease with the practice.

Advocates are hailing Nebraska's measure as a major victory. "Civil 
forfeiture is one of the most serious assaults on due process and 
private property rights in America today," said Lee McGrath, managing 
attorney of the Institute for Justice, a civil liberties law firm 
that represents forfeiture defendants. The decision to abolish 
forfeiture "will ensure that only convicted criminals - and not 
innocent Nebraskans-lose their property to forfeiture."

One major reason that the practice may persist is that most Americans 
do not know that it happens. According to a 2015 Huffington 
Post/YouGov poll, three-quarters of Americans had not even heard of 
the term "civil asset forfeiture." So pollsters then asked a specific 
question: "To the best of your knowledge, when can law enforcement 
permanently seize money or other property from a person?"

Forty percent of respondents thought property could be seized only 
after a conviction, and 12 percent said police could seize property 
after charging someone with a crime. Eighteen percent had no idea. 
Fewer than a third of Americans knew that police could seize and 
permanently keep a person's belongings without ever charging the 
person with wrongdoing.

In Nebraska, reformers took their case to the public by highlighting 
particularly egregious cases of forfeiture abuse. In 2013, Nebraska 
sheriff 's deputies took more than $14,000 in church donations from a 
pastor at a traffic stop, according to the American Civil 
Liberties-Union of Nebraska. That money was later returned. In 2011, 
Nebraska officers seized more than $60,000 from an Air Force veteran 
after saying they smelled marijuana in his car. No drugs were found 
and no charges were filed, but the veteran's money was not returned.

Even law enforcement officials, who are typically the staunchest 
opponents of changing forfeiture laws, offered some support for 
Nebraska's law. The Nebraska attorney general's office told the 
Lincoln Journal Star that the change was a "step forward." Police in 
Lincoln said that the law would "create additional work" but that 
they would comply with it.

Nebraska's measure means that now more than 73 million Americans - 
nearly 23 percent of the U.S. population - live in states where 
police cannot take their cash without a conviction at trial. But for 
everyone else, a bad experience with civil asset forfeiture may be 
just a traffic stop away.
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom