Testimony on SB138: End the unjust practice of civil asset forfeiture
Hello, my name is Robert Fellner, and I’m with the Nevada Policy Research Institute. We completely support Senate Bill No. 138, which offers Nevada the opportunity to step out of the dark ages and end the unjust practice of civil asset forfeiture.
Presently, Nevada’s forfeiture laws allow for the perversion of one of the most sacred principles of the American justice system – that one is innocent until proven guilty. Under civil asset forfeiture, this principle is reversed; law enforcement can seize property from innocent Nevadans merely by suspecting it may be associated with a crime. Innocent owners must then bear the burden, and cost, of proving their innocence.
If one is puzzled at how such a concept could even come into law, you are in good company. The legal origin for civil asset forfeiture dates back to the dark ages when people believed that objects could act on their own accord and even cause harm to others![i]
Needless to say, such beliefs, or any laws based upon these beliefs, have no place in today’s society.
The problems with forfeiture laws don’t end there, however. Currently, Nevada law enforcement can directly profit from the sale of seized property, creating a very troubling set of incentives for our sworn officers to work under. It is a serious disservice to the institution of policing to place officers in a position where they must balance monetary gain for their department against their sworn duty.
This conflicting set of incentives was on full display when Nevada’s forfeiture laws were featured in the Wall Street Journal last year.[ii] The article centered on a Humboldt County Sheriff who seized $50,000 in cash from an innocent motorist who had committed no crime other than going 3 mph over the speed limit!
Thankfully, SB138 offers Nevada the opportunity to lead the Nation in civil asset forfeiture reform by restoring the principle of “innocent until proven guilty.” The cornerstone of SB138 is the mandate that property can only be seized from those who have actually been found guilty of a crime, not merely suspected of one. It is hard to imagine how one could even oppose this; unsurprisingly, this issue enjoys widespread bi-partisan support.
To wit, the ACLU has long championed forfeiture reform, correctly noting that these laws “put our civil liberties and property rights under assault.”[iii] Eric Holder recently announced a scaling back of the practice on the federal level while The Heritage Foundation called for reform in their November 2014 policy brief[iv]. Even two of the architects of forfeiture during the Reagan Administration, John Yoder and Brad Yates, have announced that “the program began with good intentions but now, having failed in both purpose and execution, it should be abolished.”[v]
SB138 offers you the tremendous opportunity to directly end a great injustice. Seize this opportunity and let us show the Nation that Nevada governs with justice as her highest ideal.
[i] Boudreaux, D. J., & Pritchard, A. C. (1996). Civil forfeiture and the war on drugs: Lessons from economics and history. San Diego Law Review, 33, 79-135.
[ii] Elinson, Z (2014, March 16) Asset Forfeiture Gets a Close Look in Nevada. The Wall Street Journal http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304017604579443662954464596
[iii] ACLU website: https://www.aclu.org/criminal-law-reform/civil-asset-forfeiture (Accessed on 2015, March 2)
[iv]Richardson, Jordan (2014, November) Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Goes Mainstream http://www.heritage.org/research/reports/2014/11/civil-asset-forfeiture-reform-goes-mainstream (Accessed on 2015, March 2)
[v] John Yoder and Brad Cates, “Government Self-Interest Corrupted a Crime-Fighting Tool into an Evil,” The Washington Post, September 18, 2014, http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/abolish-the-civil-asset-forfeiture-program-we-helped-create/2014/09/18/72f089ac-3d02-11e4- b0ea-8141703bbf6f_story.html (accessed November 14, 2014).