An Alaska state lawmaker is proposing new legal protections for the state’s residents by requiring local and state law enforcement agencies to obtain a criminal conviction before the government can confiscate an individual’s cash or property.
Currently, Alaska law enforcement agencies can use a legal process called civil asset forfeiture to seize private assets and property they believe have been used in the commission of a crime without first obtaining a criminal conviction.
The bill was approved by the state House of Representatives in April and was sent to the Senate for consideration.
Fighting the System
State Rep. Tammie Wilson (R-North Pole), the bill’s sponsor, says complaints from taxpayers prompted her to investigate the issue.
“When we started digging into it and found out how many things that were confiscated before they even went through the court proceedings, it was very concerning,” Wilson said. “The struggle for Alaskans comes when they try and fight to repossess their property that has been seized. Civil forfeiture is so low of a threshold: You don’t get a trial; you sometimes don’t even get an actual court appearance.”
Wilson says civil asset forfeiture operates on a presumption of guilt.
“You’re treated like it’s just more likely that you did it than you didn’t,” Wilson said. “That is really hard to fight and costly. If you have to get an attorney, it could eat it up a lot of funds. I think a lot of people may just walk away instead of fighting, which makes it happen even more.”
Wilson says civil asset forfeiture puts the wants of government agents before the needs of taxpayers.
“We have processes and procedures,” Wilson said. “They’re supposed to work for our constituents, but [this] law says you’re guilty, and now you have to prove yourself innocent. Even after that, you don’t automatically get your items back. That’s wrong.”
Repeal and Replace
Lee McGrath, legislative counsel with the Institute for Justice, says lawmakers should replace civil asset forfeiture laws with criminal asset forfeiture laws.
“States should end civil forfeiture,” McGrath said. “They can replace it with criminal forfeiture. Criminal forfeiture requires a conviction of a crime as the first step. If convicted, the suspect then faces litigation in the same courtroom to determine if his cash and other property are linked to the crime.”
McGrath says civil asset forfeiture laws cost taxpayers money and their civil liberties.
“Forfeiture reform is rooted in property rights, the same fundamental idea that is at the core of market economies,” McGrath said. “Law enforcement, seizing property from people, causes them to hire lawyers and litigate the forfeiture issues in court. This is costly in real dollars and time.”
Andy Torbett ([email protected]) writes from Atkinson, Maine.