Law enforcement agencies in Maine may be breaking the law by failing to report property and cash taken during civil asset forfeitures. These agencies are also required to deposit the proceeds of forfeitures in the state’s general fund, but instead are keeping almost all of it for themselves, sources allege.
Civil asset forfeiture is the process where police can take an individual’s assets if they are suspected of being used in a crime. In most states, a criminal conviction is not necessary for property to be taken. In Maine, while the Office of the Attorney General is required to show that seized property was actually connected to a crime, the required standard of proof is low. In a criminal case, for a conviction, the evidence must be “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In a civil case, such as civil asset forfeiture, however, the standard of proof is much lower, a simple “preponderance of the evidence” is all that is required.
In order for there to be accountability, state law requires there to be “a centralized record of property seized, held by, and ordered to the department.” This report is supposed to be updated quarterly by the Maine Department of Safety and given to the Office of Fiscal and Program Review (OFPR). Christopher Nolan, the OFPR’s director, confirms that his office has no record of ever receiving this report.
“Asset forfeiture as a practice is concerning enough when the law is followed,” said Zachary Heiden of the American Civil Liberties Union of Maine, “but when law enforcement agencies ignore the law meant to keep them in check, it’s downright alarming.”
It seems, too, that Maine law enforcement agencies are keeping the proceeds of civil asset forfeitures for themselves. Even though state law requires the proceeds of civil asset forfeitures to be placed in the state’s general fund, the OFPR is only aware of a single deposit of $4,335 being made back in 2010.
“It’s concerning to me to understand that these reports aren’t being made,” said state Rep. Drew Gattine. “What I understand from talking to the folks at OFPR is that is has been a long, long time since they received one of those reports.”
Maine was applauded by critics of civil asset forfeiture when the law came into effect requiring the proceeds be deposited in the general fund. It was seen as a means of reducing the incentive for law enforcement to carry out seizures as they would no longer profit from them. However, as no law enforcement agency in Maine is reporting their seizures, it is impossible to know how much the police are bringing in or how they are using it. There is no accountability.
“Laws like this are designed to make sure that the public knows about abuse. Secrecy is anathema to the criminal justice system,” said Heiden. “You can’t have the government have the power to take people’s belongings, lock them up, and allow them to do it in secret.”
Neither Public Safety Commissioner John Morris and John Doyle, Governor LePage’s senior policy advisor, have responded to questions as to why the legally required reports have not been produced. Nor have they responded to questions about whether the reports will be produced in the future.
“Maine law enforcement officials are taking money and property from people who haven’t been convicted of a crime,” said Oamshri Amarasingham of the ACLU of Maine. “We hope our elected officials will take immediate steps to halt this shocking abuse of power.”
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