Ohio Bill Would Curb “Policing for Profit” via Asset Forfeiture

Last week, a coalition of Ohio legislators introduced a bill that would reform asset forfeiture laws to prohibit the state from taking property without a criminal conviction. The legislation also takes on federal forfeiture programs by banning prosecutors from circumventing state laws by passing cases off to the feds.

Rep. Rob McColley (R-Napoleon) and Rep. Tom Brinkman Jr. (R-Cincinnati), along with 17 cosponsors, introduced HB347 on Sept. 29. The legislation would completely eliminate civil asset forfeiture under state law and only allow forfeiture via criminal proceedings after prosecutors secure a criminal conviction.

The bill also almost completely 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.

According to the Institute of Justice, Ohio already has pretty good asset forfeiture laws compared to many states. It requires a higher standard than most and does not funnel forfeiture proceeds back to local law enforcement agencies. But police and prosecutors regularly circumvent these requirements by simply transferring assets to the feds. Ohio state and local law enforcement agencies raked in more than $80 million this way between 2000 and 2008. Under the proposed law, prosecutors would not be able to make cash seizures under federal law unless the value exceeded $50,000.

Reason explained the relevance of this provision.

"This is important because while law enforcement representatives like to suggest they’re using asset forfeiture to fight major drug dealers, in reality the average asset forfeiture value is just a few thousand dollars. In the event that Ohio police actually do make a major drug bust, they’ll still be able to participate in the sharing program."

McColley told the Columbus Dispatch that taking property from a person without a conviction is an “affront to one of our country’s most-basic principles of justice: that people are innocent until proven guilty.”

The national bipartisan Fix Forfeiture coalition supports the Ohio bill

'“It should never be enough in Ohio or anywhere else in America for an agent of the government to say, ‘You look guilty, we think you’re guilty, so we’re going to take your property,’” coalition leader Holly Harris said.'

Predictably, Ohio prosecutors freaked out about the proposal, as reported by the Dispatch.

"John Murphy said he is well aware of the horror stories, but the executive director of the Ohio Prosecuting Attorneys Association said Ohio law protects against those kinds of problems and does not need to be changed.

The process is supervised by the courts, and the taking of property cannot be out of proportion with the nature of the offense, Murphy said.

“We’re being tagged with the sins of others,” he said."

But as Reason put it, “Murphy is full of crap.” The state’s policy of simply getting the feds to do its dirty work demonstrates this fully.

As the Tenth Amendment Center reported the federal government has inserted itself into the California’s asset forfeiture debate. 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.

Asset forfeiture laws incentivize “policing for profit” on one hand, and dubious state-federal partnerships on the other.

States can stop it with bills similar HB347. In fact, state asset forfeiture reform that cuts the feds out could threaten the federal program’s very existence if other states follow the lead.