Criminal Justice

Illinois Becomes Latest State to Reform Civil Forfeiture

The trend of states reforming their civil asset forfeiture process has continued. This week, Governor Bruce Rauner signed House Bill 303 (HB 303), which places additional protections on individual property rights. HB 303 passed by a 100-1 vote in the Illinois House of Representatives and without any “no” votes in the Illinois Senate.

The bill places the burden on the government to prove that the property ought to be subject to forfeiture due to its ties to criminal activity. Previously, the burden had been on the individual to prove that the property was not tied to such activity. In addition, HB 303 will protect property owners from having to pay “cost bonds” to get a judge to hear their case. The prior law allowed for requiring property owners to pay 10 percent of the seized property’s value in order to have their case heard. In addition, even if a property owner prevailed, the law permitted the circuit court clerk to retain 10 percent of the value of the bond to cover costs. HB 303 prevents both requiring “cost bonds” and permitting a court to keep the funds. Currently, only three states, Hawaii, Rhode Island, and Tennessee require “cost bonds.”

The new law also makes the civil asset forfeiture process more open and transparent. For example, it requires the reporting of the total number of asset seizures made by each agency and the monetary value of all property seized by the agency. Furthermore, it mandates that all asset forfeiture reporting be posted to a public, searchable database on the Department of State Police’s website. In addition, the agency must report how their forfeiture fund expenditures are used.  Under HB 303, the state may withhold funds from agencies that fail to comply with these reporting requirements.

The ALEC model Reporting of Seizure and Forfeiture Act contains several of the provisions provided for in HB 303. These provisions promote a fairer dispensing of the use of civil asset forfeiture. Overall, both the ALEC model and HB 303 seek to protect individual property rights by promoting greater transparency in the asset forfeiture process.

According to the Institute for Justice, 25 states and Washington, D.C. have reformed their forfeiture laws since 2014. Some states, such as Nebraska and New Mexico, abolished the practice of civil forfeiture and replaced it with criminal forfeiture. On the federal level, the House of Representatives recently passed a bill sponsored by Illinois Congressman Peter Roskam that would curb civil forfeitures by the IRS. Due to the recent successes in both Illinois and in the U.S. House of Representatives, civil asset forfeiture reform will undoubtedly remain in the limelight for the foreseeable future.

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