In early February, the Virginia House of Delegates overwhelmingly approved a bill to reform the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws.
House Bill 1287, introduced by State Delegate Mark Cole (R-Fredericksburg), received 92 out of 99 votes, receiving only 7 “no” votes.
If passed by the State Senate and signed into law, HB 1287 would require a criminal conviction before law enforcement authorities may seize individuals’ private property.
If no conviction is obtained, the bill states, “all property seized shall be released from seizure.”
In an interview with Budget & Tax News, Cole said he became interested in the issue of civil asset forfeiture after reading about it in the news media.
“There have been some news reports about some high-profile abuses of the asset forfeiture program, and I looked into it,” he said. “Virginia’s laws were inconsistent, as to whether or not a conviction was required before property can be forfeited. Some offenses require conviction and some offenses don’t.
“I thought that it was fundamentally un-American for the government to be able to come in and take somebody’s property, without them ever having been convicted of a crime. I think it’s reasonable to require a conviction before the government can confiscate someone’s property,” Cole said.
Reason magazine senior editor Jacob Sullum says Cole’s bill offers some significant positive reforms for Virginia.
“This looks like a major improvement. Virginia received one of the lowest grades, a ‘D-,’ in the Institute for Justice’s review of state forfeiture laws, and one reason was that police can take property based on a ‘preponderance of the evidence’ standard, by showing it’s more likely than not that the property is connected to a crime,” he said.
“That’s equivalent to any probability greater than 50 percent, as opposed to the much higher ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ standard for a criminal conviction,” Sullum added.
“Under current law, the owner need not be charged with a crime, let alone convicted. Under this bill, the government could keep seized property only after a ‘conviction of the offense authorizing the forfeiture,’ which would make forfeiture under state law considerably more difficult,” Sullum said.
‘An Encouraging First Step’
Robert Frommer, an attorney with the Institute for Justice, echoes Sullum’s praise for Cole’s bill.
“The passage, by the House, of this forfeiture bill is an encouraging first step towards reforming civil forfeiture in Virginia. By requiring a criminal conviction before property may be forfeited, this bill helps improves protections for property owners, and hopefully will eliminate—or at least, reduce—the number of forfeiture horror stories we hear occurring throughout the Old Dominion.”
Jesse Hathaway ([email protected]) is managing editor of Budget & Tax News.