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Ohio may soon become one of the leading states on civil asset forfeiture reform. On Tuesday, state Rep. Rob McColley (R-Napoleon) introduced HB 347, which would protect innocent property owners by requiring a criminal conviction before seized items can be forfeited to the government. FreedomWorks supports this legislation and plans to mobilize our community to take action to help move it through the Ohio Legislature.
Though there will be some opposition to HB 347 from prosecutors and other law enforcement, Ohioans overwhelmingly back changes to the state's civil asset forfeiture laws that would protect innocent property owners, according to a survey conducted on behalf of the U.S. Justice Action Network, of which FreedomWorks is a partner organization. Fully, 90 percent of registered voters in the Buckeye State say reforms are needed to fix the problems with its forfeiture laws.
Ohio's forfeiture laws are better than most states but are in need of improvements. Prosecutors can subject property to forfeiture by showing "clear and convincing" evidence, which is below the "beyond a reasonable doubt" requirement, and property owner, who may never be charged with a crime, bears the burden of proof to get their property back. Additionally, state and local law enforcement received $80 million from 2000 to 2008 from the Department of Justice's Equitable Sharing Program, according to the Institute for Justice.
The Equitable Sharing Program is often used to circumvent protective state forfeiture laws because federal forfeiture laws have a much lower standard of evidence and the seizing state or local law enforcement agency can receive up to 80 percent of the proceeds, creating a perverse motive to self-fund. Ohio's forfeiture laws do not allow state and local law enforcement to keep proceeds from forfeitures.
The survey, conducted by Public Opinion Strategies, asked registered Ohio voters if they believe the state's current forfeiture laws are working well or in need of reform. Only 7 percent believe current forfeiture laws are working, while an eye-popping 81 percent, including 83 percent of Republicans and 87 percent of independents, say reforms are needed.
Voters were presented with two statements, one in favor of the state's forfeiture laws as they currently exist and another promoting reform, and asked which comes closest to their opinion. The first statement offered a fair reflection of those who favor the status quo, which is "civil asset forfeiture is working well now and law enforcement should be able to permanently seize money or other property if they suspect it’s connected to criminal activity, even if no charges have been filed." Again, only 7 percent agreed with this opinion.
A stunning 90 percent of voters, including 92 percent of Republicans and 91 percent of independents, agreed with the statement in favor of reform requiring formal charges and a criminal conviction as prerequisites to subject property to forfeiture. Additionally, 54 percent said they are much more likely to support a state legislator who is in favor of forfeiture reform.
HB 347, which has already attracted more than a dozen cosponsors, relects the views of 90 percent of Ohio voters. It requires a criminal conviction, requiring proof beyond a reasonable doubt that someone has committed a crime and placing the burden of proof on prosecutors, where it belongs. Importantly, the bill also prohibits equitable sharing with the federal government unless the value of the seized property exceeds $50,000. This particular aspect of the legislation is important to ensure that Ohioans are covered by the protections of state forfeiture law, rather than federal forfeiture laws, which lack meaningful protections for innocent owners.