West Virginians are stepping up their game in the fight against civil asset forfeiture within their state, continuing a seemingly nationwide trend of citizens and public interest groups fighting the controversial laws.
Citizens of West Virginia have been among the worst victims of civil asset forfeiture in the United States, receiving one of the lowest grades in the nation (D-) for its forfeiture laws and practices according to the Institute for Justice.
Two groups – Americans for Prosperity, a Virginia-based political advocacy group, and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of West Virginia – issued a news release last Wednesday describing a joint letter they sent to state lawmakers. The letter asked for provisions that would change civil asset forfeiture laws, including a requirement for criminal conviction before law enforcement agencies can file for civil asset forfeiture.
Although it might sound like a small change, the impact on civil asset forfeiture practices would be tremendous. “Under current law, police can seize and take ownership of individual West Virginians’ property without ever charging or convicting them of a crime,” the letter reads. “This unfair taking of personal property by government officials can include cash, vehicles, families’ homes, or any property police initially think may be related to a crime.”
The West Virginia Contraband Forfeiture Act actually allows law enforcement to seize any property that they believe could have been involved in a criminal act. Because of this, even if a court rules suspects innocent of the charges levied against them, law enforcement can still keep any seized property.
At this point, the burden is on the property owners to prove their innocence. In effect, although the owner of the property is innocent until proven guilty, the property itself is guilty until proven innocent. Furthermore, when money is seized and forfeited, all of the proceeds go to law enforcement, with 10% going to the prosecuting attorney’s office and the rest to a law enforcement investigation fund. Critics argue that this creates a system of “policing for profit” that both violates the rights of normal citizens and creates an incentive for police to seize more property.
The West Virginia State Police made nearly $560,00 from forfeiture in 2014, with city and local police departments raking in their own benefits as well.
West Virginians are fighting back against what they see as unfair and unjust practices in their state. “What we want to see is something that eliminates, at least for lower-end property, civil forfeiture altogether and replaces it with what we call criminal forfeiture, that is, property can only be forfeited if it’s part of a crime if there’s a conviction,” Eli Baumwell, policy director for the ACLU said. “Part of that is going to be simplifying the process by making it one legal process.”
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If your lawful property has been seized, then you should hire a lawyer. Contact us to set up a free initial consultation and work with one of Florida’s most experienced civil forfeiture defense attorneys.