- Associated Press - Friday, May 8, 2015

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - State officials are cracking down on police seizures of personal belongings.

A new statute will prohibit law enforcement from claiming any personal property before the owner is convicted of a crime.

State law currently allows police to take criminal suspects’ assets, including real estate and cars, if they have probable cause to believe those things were used in a crime or obtained illegally. No warrant or formal charge is required.

Similar federal laws exist to “take the profit out of crime,” the FBI says. The American Civil Liberties Union calls it “policing for profit.”

Montana is the fourth state to reform a system of asset forfeiture that was first enacted in the 1980s to crack down on illegal drugs, according to Lee McGrath, legislative counsel at the Institute for Justice.

“In 42 states, including Montana, law enforcement gets to keep some or all of the money that is seized and forfeited,” McGrath said. “That gives them a direct financial incentive to pursue certain types of crimes.”

McGrath said officers in most states take advantage of asset forfeiture laws by disproportionately chasing crimes such as driving under the influence and drug trafficking that carry the punishment of relinquishing property to the police. Lucrative cases often involve no warrants or charges, he said.

“If I go up to a drug dealer and put a gun to his head and say, ‘Give me your money,’ that’s a crime,” said Rep. Kelly McCarthy, D-Billings, who sponsored the bill that was signed this week. “But if the police do it, it’s legal.”

Activists said the law, which goes into effect July 1, will protect due process and the property of innocent people.

House Bill 463, which the Legislature passed with nearly unanimous support, will require Montana officers to store potentially seizable property until the suspected criminal is found guilty.

It will also require police to document what property they seize and its alleged connection to a criminal offense. They will then be burdened with proving with clear and convincing evidence that the property was involved in a crime.

The new statute will not, however, stop police from submitting assets to the federal government and receiving up to 80 percent of profit.

Montana law enforcement agencies turned over $3.6 million in assets to the federal government last year, according information provided by the U.S. Department of Justice.

The department said in a January report that its asset forfeiture program intends to reduce crime by “depriving drug traffickers, racketeers, and other criminal syndicates of their ill-gotten proceeds and instrumentalities of their trade.”

McCarthy said the new law will put the burden of proof on the government instead of requiring people merely suspected of a crime to prove they’re not guilty.

“The reason I think the (Montana) Department of Justice and the county attorneys don’t like it is because it tilts the scales of justice,” McCarthy said. “But it’s a much more fair process now.”


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