J. Justin Wilson
J. Justin Wilson · May 19, 2016

Today, Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan signed HB 336, which enacts an important overhaul of the state’s civil forfeiture laws. The bill, which overwhelmingly passed both the Maryland Senate and House of Delegates, creates transparency requirements and a long list of new protections for property owners. Sponsored by Del. Joseph Vallario and Sen. Michael Hough, the new law will take effect October 1.

“Civil forfeiture is one of the most serious assaults on due process and property rights in America,” said IJ Attorney Rob Peccola, who testified in favor of HB 336 before the House and Senate earlier this year. “The new reporting requirements in HB 336 mean the public will no longer be in the dark about civil forfeiture in Maryland. And by raising the evidentiary standard of proof, the bill will better defend owners from unjust forfeitures.”

HB 336 increases protections for Marylanders by:

  • Raising the standard of proof to forfeit property to “clear and convincing evidence;”
  • Establishing new reporting requirements for seizures and forfeitures, which oblige agencies to report how they spent forfeiture funds, whether or not criminal charges or convictions accompanied a forfeiture case, and the race and gender of property owners affected by a seizure;
  • Requiring a criminal conviction to forfeit an owner’s principal family home;
  • Repealing a provision that allowed money to be forfeited in relation to drug possession. (Forfeiting money related to the unlawful manufacture, distribution or dispensing of controlled substances would still be authorized.);
  • Requiring that property owners be given a receipt when their property is seized;
  • Instituting new deadlines for agencies to file forfeiture complaints. (Failing to file would mean the government would have to promptly return seized property);
  • Directing 20 percent of forfeiture proceeds from the general fund to the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene to fund drug treatment and education programs; and
  • Banning the transfer of seized cash to federal agencies, unless the amount seized is greater than $50,000 or if the transfer follows a federal warrant.

“For too long, local and state law enforcement have used ‘equitable sharing’ to bypass Maryland state law because the federal government offers substantially higher payouts to law enforcement than what state law allows,” said IJ Legislative Counsel Lee McGrath. “The legislation, unfortunately, did not solve this problem. The warrant exception creates a loophole allowing Maryland law enforcement to continue circumventing state law; legislators should close it. Law enforcement should not be able to contract freely with the federal government because it pays police and sheriffs more forfeiture proceeds.” Despite the large, bipartisan consensus in favor of reform, the Justice Department decided to resume equitable sharing.

A November 2015 report by the Institute for Justice, Policing for Profit, found that between 2000 and 2013, Maryland law-enforcement agencies collected more than $80 million from the U.S. Department of Justice in equitable-sharing funds.

Today’s decision is the latest development in the growing, nationwide movement to overhaul civil forfeiture. In 2014 and 2015, Minnesota, Nevada, Michigan, Minnesota and Washington, D.C. all passed crucial forfeiture reforms. Last month, Florida Gov. Rick Scott approved a set of sweeping reforms, including requiring an arrest to seize most types of property. More recently, Nebraska abolished civil forfeiture entirely and became the tenth state to require a criminal conviction as a prerequisite to most or all forfeiture cases.