, Maine Abolishes Civil Forfeiture, Now Requires A Criminal Conviction To Take Property, The Nzuchi News Forbes

Maine Abolishes Civil Forfeiture, Now Requires A Criminal Conviction To Take Property

, Maine Abolishes Civil Forfeiture, Now Requires A Criminal Conviction To Take Property, The Nzuchi News Forbes

Maine became the fourth state to abolish civil forfeiture, a practice that enables law enforcement to confiscate millions of dollars worth of property without ever filing criminal charges. Taking effect on Tuesday without the governor’s signature, LD 1521 fully repeals Maine’s civil forfeiture laws, while simultaneously bolstering its criminal forfeiture process, which only authorizes forfeiture after a criminal conviction (apart from a few narrow circumstances, like the owner’s death or deportation). 

Although civil forfeiture is typically defended as a way to fight back against drug kingpins, in reality, many forfeiture cases have been remarkably petty. In Maine, half of all cash forfeitures were under $1,670. 

“It’s a very simple concept; you don’t lose your property unless you used it in the commission of a crime, or knowingly allowed someone else to use it in the commission of a crime,” bill sponsor Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham wrote in May testimony supporting his bill. “It is time to end this work around that makes people prove innocence, rather than prosecutors proving guilt. This is one of the founding principles of our country.” 

Absent meaningful safeguards, policing for profit has run amok in Maine. Under state law, after property has been forfeited in Maine, a court can decide to send the proceeds to any county, municipal, or state agency that made a “substantial contribution to the investigation or prosecution.” For cases involving county-level or municipal-level forfeitures, county commissioners or municipal legislative bodies must then vote to approve transferring the proceeds.  

Consider Portland, Maine’s most populous city. From 2015 through 2020, the city council approved every forfeiture transfer case it was presented with, amounting to nearly $100,000 in forfeiture funding for the Portland Police Department, city council agendas and minutes revealed. Moreover, the votes on transferring forfeiture proceeds were always on the consent agenda, meaning the votes were unanimous, with little to any public debate. 

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On the other hand, if there is no court approval or if the county or municipality fails to approve the transfer, the proceeds are sent to the general fund. But that rarely happens. 

, Maine Abolishes Civil Forfeiture, Now Requires A Criminal Conviction To Take Property, The Nzuchi News Forbes

According to a 2018 investigation by the Maine Beacon, “aside from a single deposit of $4,335 made by the Public Safety Department in 2010—no recent proceeds from property forfeitures have gone into Maine’s general fund.” In sharp contrast, $276,353 was forfeited in 2010 alone. In fact, approvals are so routine, the Attorney General not only has a form letter for police to use, it regularly asks municipalities to approve the transfer of forfeiture funds before property is actually forfeited, “in order to streamline what is otherwise a cumbersome forfeiture process.” 

All told, between 2009 and 2019, Maine agencies forfeited more than $3 million under state law, according to a 2020 report by the Institute for Justice.

Yet during that same period, police and prosecutors generated more than three times as much revenue—$10.2 million—through “equitable sharing.” Under this federal forfeiture program, state and local agencies can partner with a federal agency (like the DEA or ICE), forfeit property under federal law, and then keep up to 80 percent of the proceeds.  

To close this loophole, LD 1521 bans Maine law enforcement from participating in equitable sharing, except for cases involving more than $100,000 in cash. The reform’s impact should be far-reaching: Out of 130 equitable-sharing cases in Maine over the past five years, just two involved assets valued at over $100,000, an analysis by the Institute for Justice found. Maine now joins just seven other states, plus Washington, D.C. that have limited equitable sharing.

Although LD 1521 doesn’t eliminate the transfer system under state law, it does at the very least provide some much needed transparency. Records of forfeited property, along with their transfer, must now be filed with the Department of Public Safety, which in turn will make those reports publicly accessible online.  

Nevertheless, thanks to Tuesday’s reform, Maine now has some of the best forfeiture laws in the nation. Of the three other states that ended civil forfeiture, only New Mexico completely abolished the profit incentive for state and federal forfeitures. For its part, Nebraska set a $25,000 threshold for its agencies to participate in  equitable sharing loophole, though its state constitution still allows law enforcement to keep 50% of the proceeds from forfeiture. Meanwhile, in North Carolina, the state constitution requires all forfeiture proceeds to fund public schools, but doesn’t limit equitable sharing at all. 

“Civil forfeiture is one of the most serious assaults on due process and private property rights in America today,” said Institute for Justice Senior Legislative Counsel Lee McGrath, who testified in favor of the bill. “Maine’s decision to repeal civil forfeiture ends an immense injustice and will ensure that only convicted criminals—and not innocent Mainers—lose their property to forfeiture.”

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