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Reform Supporters Question ND Civil Forfeiture Bill

Opponents of North Dakota's civil forfeiture laws say police have a "perverse incentive" to seize property before a person is convicted of a crime. (Bigbird78/Wikimedia Commons)
Opponents of North Dakota's civil forfeiture laws say police have a "perverse incentive" to seize property before a person is convicted of a crime. (Bigbird78/Wikimedia Commons)
April 2, 2019

BISMARCK, N.D. — Supporters of a bill to strengthen North Dakota's civil-forfeiture laws are dismayed by changes made to the measure.

Currently, law enforcement can seize money or other valuables they believe are associated with a crime before a person is convicted. House Bill 1286 would have overhauled the law, and gained support from groups such as the ACLU of North Dakota and Americans For Prosperity.

Lee McGrath with the Institute for Justice said reforms are due in North Dakota, which, according to his organization, has the worst civil-forfeiture laws in the nation. While they originally supported the bill, McGrath said amendments could make current laws worse.

"There are no protections requiring someone be convicted as a prerequisite to losing their property in civil court,” McGrath said. “There also is the problem that law enforcement is the beneficiary of forfeiture proceeds."

McGrath said that gives police departments a "perverse incentive" to go after certain crimes, since forfeiture proceeds can supplement law enforcement's coffers. Law enforcement has opposed changes to the state's civil forfeiture laws, saying a conviction requirement would make it harder to land a conviction.

The amended bill passed the Senate this week and now makes its way back to the House for approval.

McGrath said the state needs to strengthen people's due-process rights, and that means getting a conviction before seizing their property.

"The person in criminal court must be found guilty of the crime that he's been charged of, and then in the same courtroom, before the same judge and potentially before the same jury, the question of whether the fruit of the crime, the instrument of the crime, can be litigated,” he said.

The bill also requires law enforcement to report the amount and value of seized property. But McGrath said the bill removes a previous requirement that forfeiture proceeds exceeding $200,000 over a two-year period be deposited in the state's general fund.

Eric Tegethoff, Public News Service - ND