Civil forfeiture bill dies in State Senate

chap petersenSenator Chap Petersen (D-Fairfax City) attempted a parliamentary motion Monday on the floor of the Senate to prohibit Virginia authorities from seizing assets in a civil proceeding when the defendant had been acquitted of the underlying crime. However, his “amendment in the nature of a substitute” with the reform bill attached was killed on a 24-16 vote, with all Republicans voting “no.”

Petersen’s motion, moving the adoption of a floor substitute on SB 457, was an effort to reverse the decision of the Senate Finance Committee last week to kill his bill (SB 108), which sought to reform Virginia’s forfeiture laws. Previously, his bill had passed the Courts of Justice Committee.

For years, the Senate Courts of Justice Committee has passed forfeiture reform legislation, which requires the finding of guilt before a citizen’s property can be seized by law enforcement. However, the reform bill has never passed the Finance Committee, perhaps because a portion of the seized property is included in budget estimates relied upon by Virginia law enforcement.

“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 in the Capitol after his motion failed. “My measure would 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, the Virginia Family Foundation, 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-.

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

Petersen’s bill would have allowed 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.

From the Capitol, Petersen vowed to reintroduce legislation in the 2017 General Assembly Session.

“They may have seized the issue this year, but Senators have due process and I’m bringing it back!”

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