Insider stops forfeiture reform in Carson City

This commentary was first published in the Las Vegas Review-Journal

Controversy over the law-enforcement practice called “civil asset forfeiture” — like its frequently reported abuses — has been well documented.

Unfortunately, special interests recently quashed a bipartisan movement in the Legislature to reform the activity. Law enforcement officials were again successful, you might say, in staving off critics of the practice. Or, stated differently: Lawmakers again passed the buck.

This time, however, there’s an additional wrinkle. Law enforcement lobbyists didn’t just haunt the hallways. One held a prominent seat on the committee that heard the bill.

That person is freshman state Sen. Nicole Cannizzaro, a Las Vegas Democrat. Currently serving as vice chair for the Senate Judiciary Committee, she’s also employed as a deputy district attorney for Clark County.

With this in mind, it’s easy to understand why Senate Bill 358 was dead on arrival.

For those who don’t know, civil forfeiture is the law-enforcement practice of seizing a person’s property on a mere “reasonable suspicion” that the property was instrumental in, or was acquired due to, a criminal act. Routinely, these forfeitures occur without any criminal conviction of the individual from whom the property was taken. Or, in some cases, without charges ever being filed.

Arguably more troubling than the disregard for civil liberties and due process is the way in which forfeiture proceeds enrich law enforcement. Police agencies directly profit from each asset forfeiture they conduct. Attorneys at the Institute for Justice refer to this phenomenon as “policing for profit” — and they’re right.

So the problem isn’t just the violation of due process — it’s also the corruption of police incentive.

SB 358 would have addressed these issues. It promised to reign in possible forfeiture abuse by removing the incentive. Proceeds would go to benefit education, rather than law enforcement. Additional protections for due process were also in the bill, which had garnered broad bipartisan support. Senate Majority Leader Aaron Ford was a sponsor.

Nevertheless, SB 358 died after the Senate Judiciary Committee refused to advance the proposal.

Sen. Cannizzaro’s role as vice chair is key to understanding why the bill failed. In fact, due to the absence of the committee chairman, she led SB 358’s only hearing.

Reform would’ve meant less money for district attorneys — which, in addition to police departments, directly profit from forfeitures. Nevada DA offices earned more than $250,000 through civil forfeiture in 2016 alone, according to Attorney General Adam Laxalt’s aggregate report.

The Las Vegas Metropolitan Police Department pulled in $1.9 million. It collaborates with the Clark County DA to prosecute crimes, and recently awarded Sen. Cannizzaro a “Commendation and Certificate of Appreciation.”

Yet law enforcement, which always considers incentives when investigating crimes, refuses to acknowledge its own glaring incentive to keep the tainted money coming. Speaking in opposition to SB 358, the general counsel for a Southern Nevada police agency claimed the public misperceives the incentive issue as proceeds from forfeitures constitute a mere fraction of his agency’s operational budget.

That argument is belied, however, by the reluctance of law enforcement agencies to part with this annual revenue stream.

Senator Cannizzaro’s presence on the Senate Judiciary Committee, as it pertains to forfeiture legislation, begs for a lesson on separation of powers, supposedly a key tenet of American civics. Seemingly, the Legislature still hasn’t gotten the memo.

Postscript: On July 9, 2020, Nevada Policy filed a lawsuit against Senator Cannizzaro and every other dual-serving legislator who is currently violating the Separation of Powers doctrine. Learn more here.