Connecticut Continues to Seek Improvements to its Asset Forfeiture Process
Last year, Connecticut joined a growing list of states that have passed civil asset forfeiture laws to make it more difficult for government agencies to take property from its citizens. In fact, last year Connecticut abolished civil asset forfeiture and replaced it with criminal forfeiture. This means that absent a criminal conviction, the government would be unable to seek a judgment of forfeiture over the property of an individual. The law’s passage was a crucial victory for property rights.
However, due to a loophole in the asset forfeiture process, individuals in Connecticut can still have their property taken from them without being charged with a crime. This is due to government agencies in Connecticut being permitted to enter into an agreement with federal agencies to receive a percentage of property that is seized and subsequently forfeited in favor of the government. Such circumvention of state law is done via the federal government’s “equitable sharing program.” In essence, despite Connecticut passing a law preventing the state government from taking property absent a criminal conviction from its citizens, state and local law government agencies can still participate in civil asset forfeiture via the federal government’s equitable sharing program. Between 2000 and 2013, annual payments to state and local law enforcement through the Department of Justice’s program more than tripled, growing from $199 million to $643 million.
Currently, the Connecticut legislature is diligently working to fix this loophole. For example, H.B. 5398 would place restrictions on the state of Connecticut being able to participate in “equitable sharing” with the federal government. The bill would prevent state government agencies from entering into an agreement with the federal government to receive a percentage of funds seized and forfeited absent a criminal conviction unless the seized property includes U.S. currency in excess of $100,000. This allows the states and the federal government to pursue and cripple large-scale criminal operations while providing important safeguards for the property rights of an individual.
The ALEC model Asset Forfeiture Process and Private Property Protection Act provides that equitable sharing with federal agencies ought to be eliminated, as it provides an incentive for states to bypass state law restrictions and reinforces profit motives, which serve as a strong base for forfeiture abuse. Similar to the ALEC model, H.B. 5398 includes an exception to the elimination of equitable sharing in instances where the seized property includes U.S. currency in excess of $100,000. In the same vein, the ALEC model states that law enforcement agencies should not be able to retain the forfeiture funds they generate; these proceeds obtained from forfeiture ought to be mandated to be deposited into the state’s general fund. Redirecting the forfeiture funds from the seizing agency eliminates that agency’s motive to profit from those proceeds obtained via forfeiture.
ALEC model policy is consistent with Connecticut’s current efforts to place restrictions on equitable sharing to produce better policies for its citizens.