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Across the nation, more and more states are coming around to fix the injustices and intrusions on liberty committed through civil asset forfeiture. Just this month, Virginia, New Hampshire, and Nebraska have all taken steps to change their own asset forfeiture proceedings. Recently, a bill was introduced in the Delaware State Senate that may just make the First State the next state to adopt asset forfeiture reform.
SB 222, introduced by State Senator Colin Bonini, would implement a major overhaul in the state’s asset forfeiture practices, pursuing a model similar to that enacted in New Mexico. As is the case in New Mexico, Bonini’s bill would require a criminal conviction before forfeiture proceedings could be held.
In these proceedings, the state must provide clear and convincing evidence that the property was, in fact, involved in any criminal activity; failure to do so would result in the property being returned to the individual. The bill would enact a number of other reforms, such as eliminating the state’s Special Law Enforcement Assistance Fund, the pool of money where forfeiture proceeds are stored with very little transparency. Instead, the bill would have all proceeds be deposited in the state’s general fund, reducing the incentive for police to seize property from innocent citizens.
Delaware is in dire need of asset forfeiture reform, making Senator Bonini’s bill all the more important. In the seminal report from the Institute for Justice, Policing for Profit, Delaware received the score of a D- for its current asset forfeiture policies. Currently, very little evidence is needed for law enforcement to pursue asset forfeiture proceedings, subjecting many innocent residents to unlawful seizures.
Once these innocent property owners have had their property seized, the state then forces them to provide the evidence that their property was not involved in any criminal activity. Once the hearings have been held, up to 100 percent of the forfeiture’s proceeds can then be deposited in the Special Law Enforcement Assistance Fund, allowing law enforcement agencies to be the sole benefactor of asset forfeiture with very few checks and balances.
Many concerned citizens in the First State recognized that reform is needed to address the state’s asset forfeiture laws, and many groups have thus rallied behind Senator Bonini’s bill. From the Delaware Coalition for Open Government and the League of Women Voters of Delaware, these groups are all concerned with empowering citizens and creating a system of transparency and accountability in the government, themes that are particularly relevant when dealing with asset forfeiture reform. Thus, the citizens can be empowered once more, through protection of their private property, once asset forfeiture reform makes its way through the Delaware legislature.