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Three States Make Efforts To Keep Police From Stealing Your Stuff

Three states are building support to reform the widely criticized practice of civil asset forfeiture, when police take ownership of your property even when you have not been convicted or charged with a crime.

California, Pennsylvania and Michigan all made gains this week to reform the practice. California’s Senate passed reform bill SB 443 by a huge margin of 38-1 Wednesday, a good sign for the bill’s future.

“SB 443 would reestablish the most basic tenets of Constitutional law and values,” Lynne Lyman, California state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement. “This law simply requires that in most cases, a defendant must be convicted of an underlying crime before cash or property can be permanently seized.”

New Mexico passed a sweeping reform bill in March that was signed by the governor in April. Montana’s governor followed suit by signing a reform bill last month.

The Coalition For Public Safety, the largest bipartisan group advocating forfeiture reform, says Pennsylvania and Michigan are poised to reform the practice.

“We are encouraged to see Michigan and Pennsylvania lawmakers and leaders taking meaningful steps to raise awareness about the need for bipartisan criminal justice reform, including efforts to protect the property rights of innocent citizens across the states,” Christine Leonard, Executive Director of the Coalition for Public Safety, said in a statement.

Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder, a Republican, has said criminal justice reform will be a priority for him going forward. There are currently eight bills gaining popularity that would reform civil asset forfeiture.

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf, a Democrat, has called for criminal justice reforms as well. This comes after an ACLU report found that police seize about $1 million dollars a year from innocent Philadelphia residents, a practice that disproportionately targets blacks in the city.

There are bills in both states to address different issues with the practice.

Ideally, reformers would want legislation to require that a person is convicted of a crime before their property is forfeited. Police can still seize the property, but to actually transfer ownership they’d need a conviction.

Reformers point to a big incentive problem with asset forfeiture. Police usually get to keep a large portion, if not all, of the property they take. Numerous reports have shown that law enforcement abuse this practice to pad their budgets.

Also, including language that prevents law enforcement from skirting state laws to use federal statutes is an important element of reform. Providing legal counsel for those with assets seized is a priority as well.

Wyoming’s governor vetoed a bill earlier this year to reform the practice. (RELATED: The 7 Most Egregious Examples Of Civil Asset Forfeiture)

“The increased focus on reforming civil asset forfeiture laws in Michigan and Pennsylvania shows they are poised to join a growing number of reform-minded states leading the charge on bipartisan criminal justice reform,” Leonard said in a statement.

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