Ohio One Step Closer to Requiring Criminal Convictions for Civil Forfeiture

Late yesterday, the Ohio House and Senate overwhelmingly passed HB 347, an important overhaul of the state’s civil forfeiture laws. Under current law, Ohioans do not have to be convicted, much less charged with a crime, for the government to take their property through civil forfeiture. The bill now heads to Gov. John Kasich for his signature.

“Civil forfeiture is one of the most serious assaults on due process and private property rights in the United States today,” said Institute for Justice Legislative Counsel Lee McGrath. “Requiring a criminal conviction would curb this abuse of power.”

Absent reform, forfeiture has been a windfall for law enforcement. Last year, a report by the Institute for Justice found that between 2010 and 2012, Ohio law enforcement collected at least $25.7 million in forfeiture revenue.

To better protect innocent property owners, HB 347 would:

  • Generally require a criminal conviction (or its equivalent) as a prerequisite to forfeit property at under $15,000. That threshold would be prospectively adjusted for inflation.
  • Raise the standard of proof to clear and convincing evidence for state civil forfeiture proceedings.
  • Ban transferring seized property valued at under $100,000 to a federal agency, which would close the “equitable-sharing” loophole.

Through equitable sharing, state and local agencies that collaborate with the federal government can collect up to 80 percent of a forfeited property’s proceeds, even if doing so would circumvent state law. Using this loophole, Ohio police and prosecutors received nearly $140 million from the U.S. Department of Justice from 2000 to 2013. Yet in recent years, half of all equitable-sharing forfeitures in Ohio were under $8,500, IJ data analysis found.

On Thursday, HB 347 passed the Senate unanimously and the House by a wide margin, 81 to 10. HB 347 has earned the support of a broad, bipartisan coalition including the ACLU, the Buckeye Institute, FreedomWorks, the Institute for Justice, and U.S. Justice Action Network.

“Enacting HB 347 would be the capstone in a remarkable year for forfeiture reform,” McGrath added. “In this year alone, we saw California, Florida, Nebraska and New Hampshire all enact substantial reforms, while the party platforms for both the Democrats and Republicans endorsed forfeiture reform.”

With today’s vote, the Buckeye State is poised to join a growing reform movement. In the past two years alone, 18 other states have reformed their forfeiture laws. Today, 11 states currently require convictions for most or all forfeiture cases. Similar to what Ohio may accomplish with HB 347, four states and the District of Columbia have also taken action to close the equitable-sharing loophole.

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