This past Tuesday, Nebraska made history when Governor Pete Ricketts signed LB 1106 into law, completely reforming the state’s asset forfeiture system. In doing so, Nebraska has become the 10th state to require a conviction before property can be seized. What’s more, the reforms are so sweeping that Nebraska has become the third state, following New Mexico and North Carolina, to essentially disband its civil asset forfeiture system, a great boon for innocent citizens and private property.
As mentioned, LB 1106, first introduced by State Senator Tommy Garrett, enacted a number of major reforms to the state’s asset forfeiture system. All cases must now be preceded by a criminal conviction, ensuring that innocent citizens don’t have to suffer from having their property illegally apprehended. Furthermore, the state has the burden of proof in finding evidence that the property was involved in criminal activities. Throughout the case, proper documentation must be upheld and made public, maintaining transparency.
Nebraska’s forfeiture reform also takes big steps in curbing the federal government’s ability to pursue asset forfeiture in the state. With regard to the Equitable Sharing Program, run by the Department of Justice, the new law will prohibit local law enforcement from transferring property, valued less than $25,000, to federal agencies. Considering that, in 2013, 78 percent of all property seized in Nebraska through Equitable Sharing was valued at less than the $25,000 threshold (50 percent was actually less than $6,035), this limitation severely restricts law enforcement agencies from participating in the program. These restrictions also mean that local law enforcement agencies must use the local standard of proof, that is, a criminal conviction, before pursuing asset forfeiture, rather than using the less stringent standards of the federal government.
There is still work to be done in Nebraska, though. In 1984, citizens of the state voted in favor of a constitutional amendment that distributed half of the proceeds from asset forfeiture to law enforcement agencies, while the other half was given to the state’s school system. Unfortunately, this constitutional amendment gave police the incentive to pursue asset forfeiture as often as possible, as they were guaranteed to get half of the proceeds. Since this statute is in the Nebraska constitution, it will take another amendment to completely remove the incentive to seize property. Even so, given the checks and balances created with LB 1106, law enforcement will no longer be able to use that incentive to pursue seizures from innocent citizens.
Governor Ricketts, Senator Garrett, and the entire state of Nebraska have all played crucial roles in getting civil asset forfeiture reform passed and signed into law. Now, civil liberties, private property, and the rule of law will once again be protected in the Cornhusker State, serving as a great example for the rest of the nation to follow.