J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · June 23, 2017

Today, the Illinois House of Representatives passed a bill that bolsters transparency for civil forfeiture and strengthens due process protections for innocent property owners. Under civil forfeiture, law enforcement agencies can seize and then take title to cash, cars and other valuables without charging anyone with—let alone convicting them of—a crime.

“Through its comprehensive disclosure requirements, this law will play a vital role in keeping both the public and legislators well-informed about civil forfeiture in Illinois,” said Institute for Justice Senior Legislative Counsel Lee McGrath. “The governor needs to sign this vital reform.”

Unanimously approved by the Senate last month, HB 303 received just one vote against it in the floor vote today. The bill now heads to Gov. Bruce Rauner for signature. If he signs, HB 303 would:

  • Oblige agencies to report their forfeiture expenditures, including spending on salaries, overtime, compensation for crime victims, drug abuse programs, travel, meals and operating expenses;
  • Require that all forfeiture reporting be posted to a public, searchable database on the Department of State Police’s website.
  • Allow the Department   to adopt rules that require withholding forfeiture funds from noncompliant agencies;
  • Mandate regular, independent audits for the State Asset Forfeiture Fund;
  • Institute new notice requirements; and
  • Shift the burden of proof from the property owner onto the state—where it belongs.

“Shining a light on forfeiture fund spending is particularly important because Illinois law lets agencies keep 90 percent of what they confiscate,” noted Jennifer McDonald, an IJ research analyst who co-authored a report on forfeiture transparency and accountability. “This self-financing outside of the legislature’s power of the purse has long enabled law enforcement to escape public scrutiny and accountability.”

In addition, HB 303 would repeal the state’s “cost bond” requirement, which forces owners to pay the greater of $100 or 10 percent of their property’s value, all before they can even challenge a civil forfeiture case in court. If enacted, Illinois would follow Michigan, which repealed its cost bond in January, and leave just three states with that requirement.

The bill would also set a confiscation floor by exempting cash seizures under $500 from forfeiture, if they relate to a drug possession offense. (For all other offenses, the threshold would be $100.) According to a report by the Institute for Justice, half of all forfeitures conducted in Illinois in 2012 were under $530.

“For too long, Illinois’s cost bond has kept the courthouse doors shut for innocent owners desperate to regain their property,” McGrath said. “No one should be denied justice simply because they cannot afford their day in court.”

Illinois has become notorious for its abusive forfeiture practices. A joint study by the ACLU of Illinois and the Illinois Policy Institute reported that agencies collected more than $319 million in forfeiture funding over the past decade. And a recent investigation by Reason found that Chicago police seizures were “heaviest in low-income neighborhoods.”  

Nationwide, 22 states and Washington, D.C. have tightened their forfeiture laws since 2014, including Nebraska and New Mexico, which outright abolished the practice of civil forfeiture and replaced it with criminal forfeiture. Earlier this year, Arizona and Colorado enacted two of the nation’s best laws for forfeiture transparency and accountability. Further legislative efforts are currently pending in at least six other states.