Lawmakers in New Hampshire are proposing new legal protections for the state’s residents, requiring local and state law enforcement agencies to obtain a criminal conviction before the government can confiscate an individual’s cash or property.
New Hampshire law enforcement agencies currently can use a legal process called civil asset forfeiture to seize private assets and property believed to have been used in the commission of a crime.
‘The Wrong Incentives’
The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Dan McGuire (R–Pittsfield), says the state’s current laws on civil asset forfeiture incentivize police to take citizens’ property without first proving the individuals have actually committed any crimes.
“We think they are the wrong incentives,” said McGuire. “We wish police to enforce all our laws, not ones that show a profit. We also want them to seize drugs before they are distributed, rather than cash afterward. A study from Tennessee showed that 80 percent of the time they went for cash over drugs.”
McGuire says the bill is a small step toward improving justice in the state.
“It is one step in that direction,” McGuire said. “Note that it only applies to state-level forfeiture cases, while federal cases are much more common.”
History of Controversy
Charlie Arlinghaus, president of the Josiah Bartlett Center for Public Policy, says the issue has been a hot topic in the state for a long time.
“This issue has always been a little bit controversial, and in New Hampshire it actually goes back pretty close to 30 years,” Arlinghaus said. “Law enforcement obviously regards it as a tool through which it can track a bunch of people, particularly drug dealers and the like. In addition to that, there’s a financial benefit for law enforcement. I think they probably worry that if you make changes, it then becomes easier to stop the program.”
Starting the Debate
Arlinghaus says the bill would make some needed changes to the state’s justice system without impeding valid law enforcement activities.
“This bill also changes the level of evidence required to make [civil asset forfeiture] not impossible, but to make it just a little harder,” Arlinghaus said. “That’s a nice balance of both interests. It’s a balance of law enforcement’s interest in getting the proceeds of criminal activity, with at least some safeguards to make sure that the [activities involved are], in fact, criminal.”
Kimberly Morin ([email protected]) writes from Brentwood, New Hampshire.
Marian R. Williams, “Civil Asset Forfeiture: Where Does the Money Go?” Criminal Justice Review: https://heartland.org/policy-documents/civil-asset-forfeiture-where-does-money-go/