The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Virginia today condemned the Senate for failing to adopt Governor McAuliffe’s amendment to SB 721 that would have ensured that a person’s property could not be forfeited to the government without a criminal conviction. The amendment mirrored House legislation (HB 1287) proposed by Delegate Mark Cole of Spotsylvania County that was supported by the ACLU of Virginia. The House passed HB 1287 by an overwhelming margin of 92 to 6, but the bill failed in the Senate.
“Law enforcement should be focused on public safety, not generating revenue,” said Rob Poggenklass, Tony Dunn Legal Fellow at the ACLU of Virginia. “Yet, today the Senate failed to rein in policing for profit. Under civil asset forfeiture, law enforcement has a built in profit incentive – they can seize and keep a person’s property unless the owner could prove that their property came through lawful means. By placing the burden on the property owner, it flips our justice system on its head.”
The Governor’s Amendment to SB 721 would have required a criminal conviction before the government could keep a person’s property. This legislation would not have addressed the federal “equitable sharing” program, which allows state and local law enforcement to seize and keep up to 80 percent of a person’s property with the other 20 percent going to the federal government. Similar to Virginia’s system, under “equitable sharing” a person need not be charged with a crime.
Throughout session, the ACLU of Virginia worked with Delegate Cole and allies from across the political spectrum, including the Virginia Tea Party Patriots Federation and the Institute for Justice, to advance HB 1287.
Since July 1991, Virginia law enforcement agencies have taken in more than $91 million in asset forfeitures. Under the original program, law enforcement agencies could keep up to 90 percent of the funds from forfeitures that have a “substantial connection” to drug offenses, thus creating an incentive for use of the forfeiture mechanism. And, the person whose money or property is taken need not be convicted of – or even charged with – a crime for the money or property to be seized and forfeited.