The District of Columbia’s civil-forfeiture statute not only represents a grave assault on private property rights, but it is also an affront to due process and the rule of law. Civil forfeiture is the power of law enforcement to seize and keep property suspected of being involved in criminal activity. Under civil forfeiture, police can take property without even charging the owner with a crime. Worse, in all but a handful of states, forfeiture proceeds fund law-enforcement agencies, giving them a direct financial incentive to abuse this power.Following the methodology of the Institute for Justice’s 2010 study evaluating forfeiture in the states, D.C. earns F grades for its forfeiture laws and for the extent to which local law enforcement evades D.C. law by partnering with the federal government through its equitable sharing program. Like the worst states in IJ’s study, the District currently provides few protections for property owners and incentivizes forfeiture by returning 100 percent of the proceeds to the seizing agencies. D.C. also makes extensive use of the equitable-sharing loophole.The Civil Asset Forfeiture Amendment Act of 2013 (Bill 20-48) would bring about substantial improvement in four vital ways:1. Eliminates the Profit Incentive. Under the current statute, all proceeds from forfeited property go directly to fund law enforcement activities. This prospect of institutional gain threatens the impartial administration of justice by overzealous efforts on the part of law enforcement. The proposed bill removes this conflict of interest by directing the profits from seized property to a general fund, where Year elected officials decide how the money is spent. Significantly, the bill also directs forfeiture proceeds from the equitable sharing program to the general fund, eliminating the equitable-sharing loophole.2. Institutes a Prompt-Hearing Requirement. In 2012, 2002 a federal judge ruled that the District’s failure to provide a car owner with a hearing to challenge the seizure of his car violated due process. This bill remedies this constitutional defect by providing property owners with a prompt and meaningful opportunity to contest the seizure of their property. Additionally, the bill eliminates the fee currently required to file a claim for the property.3. Increases the Government’s Burden to Prove Property Can Be Forfeited. Along with just eight states, the District of Columbia permits forfeiture by probable cause alone. The proposed bill increases this burden of proof. To forfeit real property like homes, the District must prove that the property is subject to forfeiture beyond a reasonable doubt. For all other property, the bill raises the standard to clear and convincing evidence.
4. Restores the Presumption of Innocence. The current statute requires owners to prove their innocence to recover seized property. This turns the presumption of innocence— a hallmark of the American justice system—on its head. The proposed bill remedies this travesty by placing the burden of proof on the District to establish that the person’s property is subject to forfeiture.