Feb. 6, 2020
Sen. Harold M. Metts at (401) 276-5561
Metts proposes reform of asset forfeiture law
Rhode Islanders may lose seized property even when they broke no law
STATE HOUSE – In Rhode Island, a family can lose cash, a vehicle or other property as a result of a criminal investigation, and may never get them back, even if the result is ruling of not guilty.
The reason is a state civil asset-forfeiture law that has been described as “awful” by the Institute for Justice, which rates Rhode Island’s forfeiture law a D-.
Sen. Harold M. Metts is once again sponsoring legislation that aims to reform the state’s civil asset forfeiture laws to prevent Rhode Islanders from having their property unfairly seized or from facing an uphill battle to get them back when no crime has been proven.
“Rhode Island’s asset forfeiture law is really stacked against the common person. Police have a low burden of proof to seize property. But the person whose property was taken — even if there was no crime or they had nothing to do with one — has a higher standard of proof, and bears the entire burden of proving it should be given back. They are guilty until proven innocent. Nearly everything about this law goes against the American ideals of justice, and it is absolutely ripe for reform,” said Senator Metts (D-Dist. 6, Providence).
In order to seize property, law enforcement need only have probable cause that a crime has occurred. But to get it back, the owner must prove by a preponderance of the evidence that their property wasn’t forfeitable, and must also bear the burden of proof that they had no involvement in any illegal use of their property. Often those involved cannot afford the cost of a lawyer to navigate the process, or the cost of a lawyer exceeds the value of the property seized, and the affected person gives up trying to get it back.
Additionally, police departments are allowed to keep 90 percent of forfeiture proceeds, providing them an incentive to wield forfeiture power.
Senator Metts’ bill would generally require a court order for property to be seized, and would provide a pretrial hearing process in order to determine that a seizure was done legally. It would protect innocent owners of property by placing the burden of proof on the state to prove that an owner knew the property was being used in connection with a crime. It would require automatic return of property within three days in cases of not-guilty findings, dismissal of charges, an innocent owner finding, and other situations where the property need not be forfeited. It would also exempt homesteaded real estate, vehicles worth less than $10,000, and U.S. currency totaling $1,000 or less from being seized.
The legislation also provides for greater reporting and oversight of seized property, and places some limits on retention and sale of seized property by law enforcement agencies.
The 29-page bill is designed to protect the rights of private property owners while maintaining the core purpose of asset forfeiture, which is to ensure that those who commit crimes are not allowed to keep ill-gotten profits.
Nationwide studies have demonstrated that asset forfeiture typically hits minority and poor communities the hardest.
“Like many justice issues, forfeiture hurts the poor and people of color, who are also the people who are least likely to have the resources to fight to get their property back. But this is an issue that unites people throughout the political spectrum. This bill has the support of many of my colleagues on the other side of the aisle who feel strongly that government’s ability to take individuals’ personal property should be very limited,” said Senator Metts.
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