According to a recent analysis of public records, law enforcement agencies and prosecutors in Cook County conducted 23,000 seizures of private property between since 2012. The study also indicated that a disproportionate number of the seizures occurred in the most poverty-stricken neighborhoods of Chicago—which also happen to be primarily communities of people of color. A proposed law, however, has been passed by the state legislature that would curtail the practice of asset forfeiture related to criminal activity and is now on the desk of Illinois Governor Bruce Rauner.
What Is Asset Forfeiture?
Asset forfeiture laws were originally enacted to help police agencies address the problem of organized crime and large-scale criminal operations. The idea was that if the government—through the police and prosecutors—was permitted to seize property related to the commission of a crime, they would be able to disrupt crime syndicates and gangs. Under such laws, police could seize property based on the suspicion that it was involved in criminal activity, even if the owner is never charged, let alone convicted.
The major problem is that over time, law enforcement agencies seem to have shifted their focus from large-scale cartels and organized crime to smaller-scale operations and individuals, at least when it comes to asset forfeiture. Of the 23,000 seizures in the last five years, nearly half involved cash of less than $1,000, and about 1,500 cases involved seized amounts of less than $100.
Getting Property Back
When a person has his or her property seized, he or she may have the opportunity to get it back, but he or she must first pay 10 percent of the property’s value as bond to even begin the proceedings. Then, the owner must take action in civil court to prove that he or she is innocent and that the property should be returned. In addition to flipping the presumption of innocence, the other effect of holding the proceedings in civil court is that attorneys are not provided for property owners, and few have the resources to hire one. Thus, many seizures go uncontested for financial reasons, allowing the police to simply keep the seized property. In fact, between 2005 and 2015, the American Civil Liberties Union reports that Illinois law enforcement entities brought in more than $319 million through asset forfeiture.
The Proposed Law
Last month, the Illinois House passed a bill that would limit the ability of law enforcement to seize and keep private property. The Senate had approved the bill unanimously a month earlier. If Governor Rauner signs the bill, several changes will be made to the asset forfeiture system. First, seizures of less than $500 would be barred in most drug cases, and assets will only be permanently forfeited if the government shows it was involved in a crime by a preponderance of the evidence—a step up from the current standard of probable cause.
The new law would also remove the 10 percent bond requirement and expedite the scheduling of hearings for owners who wish to prove their innocence. The bill stops short of requiring a conviction to proceed with asset forfeiture. This was reportedly the result of a compromise between law makers and police groups, but such requirements are beginning to take hold across the country, with Connecticut becoming the most recent state to require a conviction for asset forfeiture.
Asset Forfeiture Questions
If your property has been seized by law enforcement in connection with an arrest on criminal charges, you need help right away. Contact an experienced Joliet criminal defense attorney to discuss your options. Call 815-740-4025 for a free consultation at the Law Office of Jack L. Zaremba today.