Maryland Democrats have passed a new bill in the House that would place important restrictions and safeguards on the practice of civil forfeiture, an issue I have written about previously.
Here's a review of the bill as currently written:
No, cops can't grab that cash if they see it;
The bill removes cash "in close proximity" to drugs from from being subject to seizure, and imposes a minimum of $300 before cash can be seized upon suspicion of "being involved" in the purchase of drugs.
The State has something to prove
Importantly, this bill shifts the burden of proof to the State to prove that the property seized was related to criminal activity, and that the owner was aware of it's use. This is a critical reform because it forces the State to actually hold a hearing. Before, the State would win by default, and the owner was required to come in and make a negative case - that their property wasn't involved in a crime or that they were unaware of it.
Even under a preponderance standard, proving a negative is logically impossible.
And "preponderance of the evidence" is still the standard. That's 50% +1, the lowest standard of proof in court. That's not perfect, but shifting the burden to where it belongs is a good start.
No, the cops can't launder it through the Feds
The Federal Government has a forfeiture program called "Equitable Sharing". Under this program, state law enforcement bring along a single Federal agent who uses his authority to seize the property. He then transfers some ~80% back to the state enforcement department who brought him along. The whole point of this exchange is to ignore state reforms and restrictions on forfeiture.
The bill prohibits turning assets over to the Feds and therefore using this system. It contains an exception if the case is prosecuted in Federal court. ('cause, well.) This gives the other reforms teeth, by denying local police an escape hatch through Federal agents.
Cops actually have to charge the person they looted
The law requires charges be brought within 90 days or the property must be immediately returned. No claiming that cash is drug money, seizing it, and then never bringing charges against the supposed drug runner the cash was seized from.
Requiring "charge or return" disincentivizes police from seizing property under the extremely low bar for forfeiture while avoiding the protections that come into play when a person is placed on trial. Requiring immediate return also helps prevent local police from developing convoluted policies that encourage people to abandon their seized property.
Finally, the bill adds an extensive section requiring, essentially, that the police keep records of what they seize and how they spend that money, and turn those records over to an oversight agency, the Governor's Office Of Crime Control And Prevention. Turning these records over to the Governor's agents allows the citizenry to hold the Governor responsible should forfeiture funds be used to purchase, as has happened elsewhere, margarita machines, among other essential crime-fighting tools. (Like beer kegs)
This bill is fairly straight-forward and doesn't have any poison pills that I could find. It's an honest, serious attempt to reform a system that is widely abused and corrupts police forces. It's essentially the bill I would have written.
I'll be trying to talk to several Republican Delegates over the next few days, and try to understand why all House Republicans save two voted against it.