Research & Commentary: Reforming Maine’s Civil Asset Forfeiture Laws Could Help Opioid Epidemic

Published September 20, 2019

According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), 360 opioid-related overdose deaths occurred in Maine in 2017. Unfortunately, this placed the Pine Tree State “among the top ten states with the highest overdose deaths involving opioids.” According to one study, the opioid epidemic costs Maine more than $100,000,000 every year, including funds for criminal justice and medical treatments.

Although opioid overdose deaths are declining, the costs of the opioid epidemic loom large. There are many ways states could address these costs, including reforming existing civil asset forfeiture laws. States should reform their current laws from civil to criminal asset forfeiture and divert seized assets to state-based programs including drug rehabilitation, counseling, and criminal court, among other programs aimed at decreasing opioid abuse.

Regarding the Maine’s current asset forfeiture program, the Institute for Justice (IJ) gives the state a “B+” grade. Although all forfeitures are directed to the state’s general fund, Maine has a “low bar to forfeiture and no conviction [is] required.” Moreover, the proceedings for forfeiture are based on a preponderance of evidence and often the burden of evidence is placed upon property owners.

Maine could easily reform this law by requiring a conviction before property is seized by state authorities. In cases involving drug-related criminal activity, Maine should divert seized property and funds to programs that specifically and only address opioid abuse and addiction, rather than into the state’s general fund.

In case Maine legislators need a model to follow, they should consider what Georgia lawmakers passed four years ago. In 2015, the Georgia General Assembly passed House Bill 233, which reformed the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws. Under the “Georgia Uniform Civil Forfeiture Procedure Act,” proceeds from forfeitures can be used “for drug treatment, mental health treatment, rehabilitation, prevention, or education or any other program which deters drug or substance abuse or responds to problems created by drugs or substance abuse; for use as matching funds for grant programs related to drug treatment or prevention; to fund victim assistance; or for any combination of the foregoing.”

There is strong evidence drug courts can reduce opioid abuse. The costs of Maine’s drug court “is between $150,000 and $200,000 a year,” according to Chief Justice of the Maine Supreme Court Leigh I. Saufley. Literature on drug courts has found they can reduce recidivism rates, substance abuse, and costs. For example, one study found that “drug courts reduce recidivism by 7.5%.” An analysis of drug courts in Washington State found the “$9.8 million investment in [the state’s] six adult drug courts produced a net savings of nearly $14.8 million in avoided prison costs.”

Further, treating opioid addiction is costly. According to the NIDA, medication assisted treatments and medical support services can cost thousands to tens of thousands of dollars per year. NIDA estimates methadone treatment is $6,552 per year; buprenorphine is $5,980 per year, and naltrexone treatment is $14,122 per year. From May 2017 to April 2018, Maine spent $585,000 of a $1.4 million grant from the 21st Century Cures Act on “treatment and prevention.”

Moreover, proceeds from criminal forfeitures could be diverted to address opioid overdoses. Naloxone is a commonly used opioid antagonist that can reverse the effects of overdoses. Its use in Maine has increased, according to data from the state’s Medicaid program. In 2017, Maine’s Medicaid program issued 351 naloxone prescriptions. This more than doubled “to 735 in 2018.”

Reforming Maine’s misguided civil asset forfeiture laws to criminal asset forfeiture will ensure transparency and restore due process. Further, diverting proceeds from criminal drug convictions could be used to aid the state’s efforts in combating opioid addiction and abuse.

The following articles provide more information on the opioid epidemic and civil asset forfeiture.

Research & Commentary: State Medicaid Costs Associated with Opioid Use Disorder Tripled from 1999 to 2013–commentary-state-medicaid-costs-associated-with-opioid-use-disorder-tripled-from-1999-to-2013
In this Research & Commentary, Lindsey Stroud, state government relations manager at The Heartland Institute, examines a study by Penn State researchers which found the costs of the opioid epidemic to states’ Medicaid programs exceeded more than $3 billion in 2013. Stroud notes that “overall societal costs” of opioid use disorder, including health care, criminal justice and workplace costs have increased by over 565 percent.

Civil Asset Forfeiture: When Good Intentions Go Awry
In this testimony given before the Mississippi Asset Forfeiture Transparency Task Force, John Malcolm of The Heritage Foundation examines forfeiture in Mississippi and other states and argues for reform. “Civil asset forfeiture should remain focused on its original purpose of depriving criminals of their ill-gotten gains, but we must be sure that it is criminals and only criminals who are being impacted,” said Malcolm.

Policing for Profit: The Abuse of Civil Asset Forfeiture
Marian Williams, Jefferson Holcomb, Tomislav Kovandzic, and Scott Bullock argue civil asset forfeiture laws constitute one of the most serious assaults on private property rights in the nation today. “Americans are supposed to be innocent until proven guilty, but civil forfeiture turns that principle on its head. With civil forfeiture, your property is guilty until you prove it innocent,” they write.

Civil Asset Forfeiture, Equitable Sharing, and Policing for Profit in the United States
Jefferson E. Holcomb and Marian R. Williams, professors in the department of Government and Justice Studies at Appalachian State University, and Tomislav V. Kovandzic, a professor in the University of Texas–Dallas School of Economic, Political, and Policy Studies, identify the effects of civil asset forfeiture reform on law enforcement activities. They write, “There is substantial anecdotal evidence that law enforcement [agencies] utilize a variety of tactics to generate the greatest revenue from their forfeiture operations,” a hypothesis their analysis of U.S. Department of Justice statistics confirms. 

Seize First, Question Later: The IRS and Civil Forfeiture
Institute for Justice researcher Dick M. Carpenter II and attorney Larry Salzman examine the use and abuse of civil asset forfeiture laws by the Internal Revenue Service. “Federal civil forfeiture laws give the Internal Revenue Service the power to clean out bank accounts without charging their owners with any crime,” they write.

Civil Asset Forfeiture: 7 Things You Should Know
This Heritage Foundation Factsheet outlines several important things people should know about civil asset forfeiture. 

Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Goes Mainstream
Jordan Richardson of The Heritage Foundation discusses how the growing number of civil asset forfeiture abuses has drawn the attention of news media and suggests the increased attention may lead to real reform.

The Civil Asset Forfeiture Racket
A. Barton Hinkle of the Reason Foundation examines the growing problems created by civil asset forfeiture and argues for repeal of such laws.

Inequitable Justice: How Federal ‘Equitable Sharing’ Encourages Local Police and Prosecutors to Evade State Civil Forfeiture Law for Financial Gain
The Institute for Justice examines the federal law enforcement practice known as equitable sharing, which enables and indeed encourages state and local police and prosecutors to circumvent the civil forfeiture laws of their states for financial gain.

Nothing in this Research & Commentary is intended to influence the passage of legislation, and it does not necessarily represent the views of The Heartland Institute. For further information on this and other topics, visit the Budget & Tax News website, The Heartland Institute’s website, and PolicyBot, Heartland’s free online research database.

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