- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 11, 2016

ANNAPOLIS — A bipartisan group of state senators is pushing to reform Maryland’s property seizure laws, facing an uphill battle as state police argue that they will have a tougher time combatting a growing heroin epidemic without the funds they collect.

Prodded by stories of abuse of the system, senators said it is time to rein in use of asset forfeiture, calling it a vestige of a bygone era that has become an enticement for police to go too far.

Oftentimes police officers will stop and confiscate a car or money but will not pursue charges against anyone, and without returning the property. That raises questions as to whether the seizure was justified, critics said.

“Today in Maryland, this legal fiction continues to exist — that property can be found guilty of a crime while the owner of the property was found not guilty or was never even charged with a crime,” said Sen. Michael Hough, Frederick County Republican.

Republicans and Democrats are pursuing a bill that would make it easier for victims of police seizures by putting the burden on police to prove that the seized property is connected to a crime.

The legislation also would create a process for people to get their property back, which right now can take months or even years.

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The bill boasts support from a wide range of advocacy groups such as the American Civil Liberties Union, the Institute for Justice, FreedomWorks, the Faith and Freedom Coalition, Americans for Tax Reform and the NAACP.

But police and the Governor’s Office of Crime Control and Prevention — and a few lawmakers — said that such a reform could hobble efforts to nab heroin dealers and would give drug dealers an advantage in keeping their ill-gotten property.

Even though the bill would allow police to seize property, its requirement for a conviction in order to keep the property could squelch investigations of drug traffickers, said Maj. David Ruel of the Maryland State Police.

“Say you stopped someone who was a midlevel person for a drug operation, or a low-level drug runner,” Maj. Ruel said. “It’s not always advantageous to arrest them. It may prevent you from signing them up as a confidential informant, or without the conviction, the money goes back to the drug traffickers.”

Those who said they were victims of police seizures detailed their stories to a legislative committee Thursday.

Naeem Harrison said police who suspected him of trafficking marijuana pulled him over in Baltimore in 2012. He had no drugs on him but did have $3,852 that he had just withdrawn from a bank, with a receipt still wrapped around it. He was going to use the cash to go shopping for his two children and to pay his college fees.

But officers impounded his car and took the money, saying he could only get it back if he gave the police the names of anyone who had an illegal gun or was selling drugs.

“I was terrorized that day,” Mr. Harrison said, adding that the encounter eroded his trust in the police.

It took him two months to get his car and more than a year to reclaim his money.

Part of the problem, critics say, is that there’s no sense for how widespread the issue is.

The legislation would require police to publish records on how much money they have seized and how they are spending it. That information currently is provided only when local authorities cooperate with federal agents on a case.

“We have no information, we’re flying blind,” Mr. Hough said. “I’ve tried. I’ve written letters to state police, I’ve asked in open hearings, I can get no information on asset forfeiture programs in Maryland. It’s incredibly frustrating, and it’s a government transparency issue.”

Holly Harris of the Fix Forfeiture advocacy group said most targets of police seizures aren’t the big drug kingpins that officers portray.

“Many of them are $300 or less, we’re not talking kingpins, we’re talking everyday citizens,” she said.

The Maryland legislature last year passed a bill that would put the burden of proof on the state, rather than the victim of asset forfeiture. Republican Gov. Larry Hogan vetoed that measure, but the legislature overrode his veto last month.



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