The Indiana General Assembly is considering reforming its laws permitting governments to take ownership of people’s cash and property without first proving they were used in the commission of a crime.
In January, state Sen. Phil Boots (R-Crawfordsville) introduced Senate Bill 8, which would require a criminal conviction before governments could use asset forfeiture to take ownership of individuals’ assets or property.
Currently, Indiana law permits the government to take assets or property based on the suspicion the assets were used or gained during a crime. Individuals must then prove the property was not used in a crime, reversing the traditional presumption of innocence.
‘They’re Up in Arms’
Boots says many people become upset when they learn about civil asset forfeiture.
“When I tell people about this, they’re up in arms and say, ‘You can’t really do that,’” Boots said. “I say, ‘Well, they do.’ My goal is to protect the rights of the average citizen. I’m just trying to bring a little common sense to the way this whole thing is prosecuted.”
Boots says the current system gives the government a strong incentive to seize and keep individuals’ property.
“There is an incentive to go out and take people’s property, and, unfortunately, they have all the force on their side,” Boots said. “They can do pretty much what they want to do. The low-income individual has to go out and find an attorney to fight them on this issue, and they end up being challenged by the public officials who are funded by the public. Their tax dollars are going to defeat them that way. Plus, they’re having to spend their own dollars to defend themselves. I think there has been a lot of opportunity for abuse in this process.”
Jenna Moll, a deputy director with the U.S. Justice Action Network, a nonprofit organization working to reform criminal justice systems, says civil asset forfeiture reform is gaining momentum across the nation.
“The more states do this without any sort of repercussions for law enforcement, the more other states are going to feel comfortable about it,” Moll said. “The more people hear that this is a real thing that happens, the more they are going to be calling their legislators and saying, ‘I want this changed, and I want it changed now.’ In 2017, more than half a dozen states are going to be considering this issue, that we know of already. I expect that number to grow, and I expect this issue to gain momentum.”
Moll says civil asset forfeiture reform is about respecting law-abiding citizens’ constitutional rights.
“No one wants to end forfeiture,” Moll said. “They just want to make sure that we’re conducting it against convicted criminals.”