Legislators in Indiana have passed SB 99, a bill updating aspects of Indiana’s civil asset forfeiture procedures. If governor Eric Holcomb signs it into law, changes could come into effect as soon as July this year.
Support in both houses of the Indiana Legislature was unanimous. The bill is designed to improve protections for property owners in the event of their property being seized as part of a civil asset forfeiture action.
A fundamental change SB 99 would make is to require a prosecuting attorney to assess within seven days whether there is probable cause for seizure of the property. Currently, Indiana law states that property may be held for up to six months after being seized.
If the state files a forfeiture claim within 180 days of seizure, the property may be held indefinitely until the conclusion of the case. As a result, the law can place a heavy burden on “innocent owners” whose property has been taken as the result of a crime by another party. “Too often, we’re holding too much property that doesn’t have much to do with the crime that’s alleged, and we’re holding it for too long,” explains Rep. Ryan Hatfield (D-Evansville).
Under the new bill, after probable cause has been established, the prosecutor would have to file a case within three months of seizure. That time frame would be reduced to three weeks if the property owner demands the return of the seized property.
While civil rights groups and libertarians broadly support reform of civil asset forfeiture laws, the Indiana legislation has been criticized as not addressing the “policing for profit” system these groups say underpin nationwide abuses of civil asset forfeiture. Sam Gedge, attorney at the libertarian nonprofit Institute for Justice, says the Indiana bill “enshrines a profit incentive that would go to police and prosecutors.”
SB 99 contains a mechanism for disbursing the financial gains of civil asset forfeiture first to attorneys, then law enforcement and prosecutors. Any remaining funds then go to the Common School Fund. This is despite the state constitution stipulating all money from civil asset forfeiture should go to to the Common School Fund.
“What we’re really trying to do with this bill… is hope that if we say it’s reimbursement of expenses, that the courts will let us get away with not putting it in the Common School Fund,” says Re. Matt Pierce (D-Bloomington). “So, we need to deal with that issue at some point.”
Despite this opposition, the bill sees broad support among Indiana law enforcement, including the Indiana Prosecuting Attorneys Council. Terry Curry, a Marion County Prosecutor who has traditionally opposed civil asset forfeiture reform, argues that SB 99 will benefit the state by refocusing civil assets forfeiture on cases involving drugs rings.
“This legislation strikes an appropriate balance by maintaining law enforcement’s ability to seize the profits of criminal activity while providing significant protections for property owners,” says Curry.
Professor Jeff Cardella of Indiana University’s Robert H. McKinney School of Law describes the bill as “a huge improvement.” He says, however, that even if SB 99 passed, Indiana’s laws on civil asset forfeiture would still be “constitutionally defective” as he argues they run afoul of the due process clauses in the U.S. Constitution.
Governor Holcomb has not indicated whether he will sign SB 99 into law, saying he will “consider it carefully” before coming to a final decision.
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