Chap Petersen bill to limit civil forfeiture of property prior to conviction

lawState Sen. Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City) has introduced legislation that will dramatically limit the ability of law enforcement to take property from citizens prior to conviction.

“There’s no reason why the government should seize property from citizens prior to conviction. This is an issue of fundamental liberty which ensures that all citizens receive due process of law,” Petersen said from his law office in downtown Fairfax City. “My legislation will protect citizens from government abuses, and protect the due process of law in the Commonwealth.”

The seizure process, called “civil forfeiture,” has come under fire from a variety of organizations including the ACLU of Virginia, the Virginia Tea Party Patriots, and Americans for Tax Reform. Asset forfeiture disputes and egregious examples of the practices have been reported on by the Virginian-Pilot, the Washington Post, the Daily Press, and the Richmond Times Dispatch.

Last year, data provided by the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services and obtained by the Richmond Times Dispatch and others described how “227 law enforcement agencies in Virginia that participated in the program from 2008 to 2014 seized 13,881 assets valued at $62.2 million, or an average of $10.3 million a year.”

In order from lowest to highest, Fairfax County, the City of Hampton, the City of Richmond, and Chesterfield County returned the least property to Virginia citizens. Their rates of return ranged from 3.1 percent for Fairfax County to 10.37 percent. The specific percentages are available from the Times Dispatch story and the Virginia Department of Criminal Justice Services.

The Institute for Justice, a libertarian-leaning nonprofit,  gives Virginia’s civil forfeiture law a D-.

Unlike in many states, Virginia places the burden on return on the citizen, rather than the government.  Petersen noted that the proposed state budget even builds in assumed revenue from civil forfeitures for the State Police appropriation.  “That’s unacceptable,” stated Petersen.

Petersen’s bill, SB 108, follows efforts by the General Assembly to limit civil forfeiture in the 2015 session. That legislation was defeated.

Petersen’s bill only allows civil forfeiture if the forfeiture upon a predicate conviction, or if it is ordered by a court pursuant to a plea agreement, or if the owner of the property does not submit a written demand for the return of property within one year of seizure.

The bill has been assigned to the Senate Committee for Courts of Justice.

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