For those of you who don’t know what civil asset forfeiture, it’s essentially a process whereby law enforcement can take property – money, cars, houses, etc. – they feel was used in a crime and keep it regardless of whether or not you’re actually convicted or even charged with anything.
Law enforcement literally gets to keep the proceeds from whatever property they seize.
HB1170, introduced by Rep. Rick Becker (R-Bismarck), restricts that process here in North Dakota by making several changes to the law. Notably it would prohibit the forfeiture of property in the absence of a guilty verdict for the property’s owner. It would also require that any revenues from forfeited property go into the state’s general fund instead of to law enforcement.
Rep. Dan Ruby (R-Minot) objected to that portion of the bill, but Becker called it a “perverse incentive” for law enforcement to seize property for profit, though he also noted that North Dakota doesn’t seize property all that often relative to other states. Only South Dakota takes less.
Rep. Pat Heinert (R-Bismarck), who is also sheriff of Burleigh County, spoke at length against the bill. He objected to the requirement of a criminal conviction before property is seized, noting that it’s often used as leverage in plea negotiations.
“Asset forfeiture in North Dakota is meant to take away incentive to commit crimes,” he said.
But Becker, responding to Heinert, noted that his legislation only impacts the forfeiture of property through the court process. He said it does not prohibit law enforcement from seizing property from suspected criminals, but only requires a conviction before the defendant in a criminal proceeding loses it.
That seems important to me. Imagine being arrested for a crime you didn’t commit and seeing your property – cash, a car, maybe a home – forfeited before a court renders a “not guilty” verdict. That’s possible under today’s laws, but not Becker’s bill.
It seems like that’s something we shouldn’t let happen. A majority in the state House agreed, voting 50-42 to pass Becker’s bill.
Here’s the video of the floor debate: