Civil Asset Forfeiture: What is it? And, Why is it a Hot Topic in the Legislature

A big topic at the Capitol is Civil Asset Forfeiture. But what do those three words mean?

It mainly has to do with people accused of or guilty of committing a crime and the evidence related to that crime. 

If someone is accused of committing a crime with a gun, for example, that firearm is seized and taken into evidence. 

Once any criminal court proceedings are finished, the evidence involved in the case moves on to civil court. There, a judge can decide whether or not your property is returned to you.

Reasons for keeping evidence could be due to its dangerous or illicit nature. 

North Dakota is one of two states with an “F” rating when it comes to Civil Asset Forfeiture Law, according to the Institute for Justice.

KX News sat down with a lawmaker who’s pitched a bill in the House for reform, and with an investigations officer about what he thinks of the proposed changes.

As the law stands, if your property is seized due to suspected criminal activity, you have to go to court twice. Once for the alleged crime, and secondly, to fight to get your property back, regardless of your guilt or innocence.

North Dakota Republican Representative Rick Becker adds, “If they seize 1,000 dollars from you, and then the court’s going to forfeit it unless you can come to court and fight for it; are you really going to pay an attorney 2,000 dollars to fight to get your 1,000 dollars back?”

Any money forfeited goes back to the law enforcement agency that seized it in the first place.

Representative Becker says this creates an incentive for officers to seize property for forfeiture. This is often called ‘policing for profit’.

Representative Becker explains, “No one’s accusing them of that now, but law enforcement officers are no different than you or me, politicians, plastic surgeons, reporters. They’re human beings and they have human nature, and all of us respond to incentives.”

Bismarck Police Department Investigations Sergeant Mike Bolme says, “That allegation is completely false, completely false. I can’t stress that enough. No one’s out here to hurt innocent people. You don’t get into my line of work with the intention of hurting innocent people.”

The new House Bill says, if you’re not convicted of a crime, you can have your property back without having to go through civil court.

Sergeant Bolme is in charge of keeping track of BPD’s Asset Forfeitures. He has an issue with this part of the bill because they can’t always get the conviction they’d hoped for.

Sergeant Bolme explains, “Well sometimes you need that civil mechanism to make sure that money doesn’t go back to the drug dealers and the human traffickers and things like that.”

One part of House Bill 1286 that lawmakers and law enforcement can both agree on, is a reporting system, something not currently being tracked. 

Representative Becker explains, “So we know what’s being seized, why it’s being seized and where it’s being seized.”

Sergeant Bolme adds, “You know, it never hurts to shine light on a process, we’re not scared of that. I think that’s probably a good thing, and hopefully, it will alleviate some of those fears.”

Sergeant Bolme’s biggest concern is that if the bill does pass, then forfeited funds will no longer go back into the law enforcement agency.

While Representative Becker says this will take away their incentive to wrongfully seize, Sergeant Bolme says without this revenue from criminals, BPD will lose 100,000 to 120,000 a year. This money has gone toward training, equipment, and their K9 program.

Thursday, the bill received a DO PASS recommendation from the committee, 11 to 3. Representative Becker expects it to pass in the House, but he’s unsure about the Senate.

A similar bill failed in the Senate during the last legislative session.

One of the reasons North Dakota ranks so low and received an ‘F’, is because state law says law enforcement can seize your property with probable cause alone. 

That means a police officer needs only enough information to suspect a crime is being committed in order to take any money, firearms or other property involved. 

Other states, like North Carolina and Nebraska, require proof beyond a reasonable doubt. 

Massachusetts is the only other state to receive a failing grade. 

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