Techdirt‘s Tim Cushing reports on a hopeful sign from Virginia:
The Institute for Justice’s 2010 report “Policing for Profit” [PDF] listed Virginia as one of the worst five states in the nation in terms of forfeiture abuse. Pushing the state towards its Bottom Five finish was this perverted incentive: 100% of the proceeds from civil asset forfeiture were retained by the law enforcement agency performing the seizure. And, like a majority of states, Virginia also perverted the justice system, deeming the property “guilty” and transferring the burden of proof to those whose assets were seized.
Now that civil asset forfeiture has gone mainstream, receiving coverage from major press outlets, legislators are having a harder time ignoring opponents of these “legalized theft” programs. In response, Virginia’s lawmakers are trying to drag the state out of its forfeiture morass.
Last week the Virginia House of Delegates overwhelmingly approved a bill that would effectively raise the burden of proof for civil forfeitures by forcing the government to return seized property unless it can obtain a criminal conviction. The bill, introduced by Del. Mark Cole (R-Spotsylvania) and Del. Scott Surovell (D-Mount Vernon), passed by a vote of 92 to 6 and is now being considered by the state Senate.
This fixes one major issue with many civil asset forfeiture programs. Virginia’s laws only demanded a “preponderance of the evidence,” something that sounds like a lot but in reality is far lower than establishing guilt “beyond a reasonable doubt.” If the latter edges towards a theoretical 75% assurance of guilt, the percentage for asset forfeiture approaches a coin flip: 51%. Now, there needs to be a conviction before the agency can keep the seized property.