Illinois Committee Passes Bill Taking on Asset Forfeiture, Closing Federal Loophole

SPRINGFIELD, Ill. (March 30, 2017) – An Illinois House committee passed a bill that would reform the state’s asset forfeiture laws to prohibit the state from taking property without a criminal conviction in some situations. The legislation also takes on federal forfeiture programs by banning prosecutors from circumventing state laws by passing cases off to the feds.

Rep. Will Guzzardi (D-Chicago) introduced House Bill 689 (HB689) in January. The legislation would reform Illinois asset forfeiture laws by requiring a conviction before proceeding with forfeiture in some situations. It also makes numerous other changed to current forfeiture procedures to better protect property owners. Under current law, Illinois law enforcement can take property even if a person is never found guilt of a crime, or even charged.

The proposed law would impose extensive reporting requirements relating to asset forfeiture on law enforcement agencies. It would also change most forfeiture distributions from law enforcement agencies to an Asset Forfeiture Proceeds Fund created by the law. Money from the fund would be distributed through a grant process. Currently Illinois law enforcement agencies can keep up to 90 percent of forfeiture money. This change would reduce the perverse policing for profit incentives in the current law.

Yesterday, the House Judiciary – Criminal committee passed HB689 with an 8-5 vote.

ADDRESSES FEDERAL PROGRAMS

HB689 also closes a loophole that allows prosecutors to bypass more stringent state asset forfeiture laws by passing cases off to the federal government under its Equitable Sharing forfeiture program. The proposed law would specifically prohibit this practice in most cases.

"Sec. 29B-20. Transfer of forfeitable property to the federal government.

(a) No State, county, municipal law enforcement agency, or prosecuting authority may enter into an agreement to transfer or refer seized property to a federal agency directly, indirectly, by adoption, through an intergovernmental joint taskforce, or by any other means for the purposes of forfeiture litigation, and instead shall refer the seized property to appropriate local or State prosecuting authorities for forfeiture litigation under this Article, unless the seized property includes U.S currency in excess of $100,000.

(b) If the seized property includes U.S. currency in excess of $100,000, a State, county, or municipal law enforcement agency may refer or transfer the seized property to a federal agency for forfeiture litigation under federal law, but nothing in this Section shall be construed to require the referral or transfer."

The inclusion of provisions barring state and local law enforcement agencies from passing off cases to the feds is particularly important. In several states with strict asset forfeiture laws, prosecutors have done just that. By placing the case under federal jurisdiction, law enforcement can bypass the need for a conviction under state law and collect up to 80 percent of the proceeds from forfeited assets via the federal Equitable Sharing Program. Illinois currently ranks 10th in the U.S. in the amount of Equitable Sharing funds collected.

For example, California previously had some of the strongest state-level restrictions on civil asset forfeiture in the country, but law enforcement would often bypass the state restrictions by partnering with a federal asset forfeiture program known as “equitable sharing.” Under these arrangements, state officials would simply hand over forfeiture prosecutions to the federal government and then receive up to 80 percent of the proceeds—even when state law banned or limited the practice. According to a report by the Institute for Justice, Policing for Profit, California ranked dead last of all states in the country between 2000 and 2013 as the worst offender. During the 2016 legislative session, the state closed the loophole.

As the Tenth Amendment Center previously reported the federal government inserted itself into the asset forfeiture debate in California. The feds clearly want the policy to continue.

Why?

We can only guess. But perhaps the feds recognize paying state and local police agencies directly in cash for handling their enforcement would reveal their weakness. After all, the federal government would find it nearly impossible to prosecute its deplorable “War on Drugs” without state and local assistance. Asset forfeiture “equitable sharing” provides a pipeline the feds use to incentivize state and local police to serve as de facto arms of the federal government by funneling billions of dollars into their budgets.

WHAT’S NEXT

HB689 will move to the House for further consideration.