Montana Governor signs legislation to protect innocent property owners from government overreach

There’s big news out of Montana. Gov. Steve Bullock signed legislation on Tuesday to protect innocent people and their property from civil asset forfeiture abuse by overzealous law enforcement.

HB 463 eliminates civil asset forfeiture by requiring the government to obtain a criminal conviction, where the standard of proof is "beyond a reasonable doubt." Property believed to be connected to an illicit act can still be seized, but the government is required to return it if the property owner isn’t convicted of a crime. After months of working through the Republican-controlled Montana Legislature, lawmakers, in late April, gave final passage to the bipartisan bill with just days left to go in the session.

While Bullock, a Democrat, remained quiet about the future of HB 463, he approved Republican-backed legislation prohibiting Montana law enforcement from obtained some surplus military equipment through the Pentagon’s controversial 1033 program. Certainly, this was a positive development in terms of the fate of the HB 463.

The Daily Caller reports that Bullock signed HB 463 into law Tuesday afternoon, handing innocent Montanans with a decisive victory over government overreach.

"Thanks to Governor Bullock’s signing today of HB 463, the due process protections that our founders envisioned when authoring the 5th Amendment are now much stronger," state Rep. Kelly McCarthy (D-Billings), who sponsored the bill, told The Daily Caller. "Innocent Montanans do not have to fear losing their assets to the state when they’ve not committed a crime and those facing forfeiture are now assured fair treatment in Montana court rooms."

The Coalition for Public Safety, the nation’s largest bipartisan effort to reform the justice system, hailed the passage of the bill. (FreedomWorks is a partner organization in this effort.)

"The Coalition commends Governor Bullock and the Montana legislature on enacting bipartisan legislation that will protect the property rights of Montanans and strengthen public safety across the state. When used responsibly, asset forfeiture can be an important tool for law enforcement to deter crime," said Christine Leonard, Executive Director of the Coalition for Public Safety. "This law will help ensure it is used for that purpose, allowing law enforcement to better target criminal activity while protecting the property and due process rights of innocent citizens."

"Montana joins a growing number of reform-minded states leading the charge on bipartisan criminal justice reform," she said, "and today’s actions will hopefully spark other states across the country to enlist in the fight for a smarter, fairer, more effective system."

In April, New Mexico Gov. Susana Martinez, a Republican, signed a comprehensive, bipartisan bill to protect innocent people and their property by eliminating civil asset forfeiture. Other states — such as Georgia, Minnesota, and Utah — and the District of Columbia have passed reforms in recent years. With an impressive package of legislation introduced in April, Michigan, where Republicans control the state legislature, could be the next state to pass significant civil asset forfeiture reform.

In addition to the efforts in state legislatures, there is tremendous movement on civil asset forfeiture reform in Congress, where Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah), and many others — are looking to end the federal government’s facilitation of abuse and restore the Fifth Amendment’s guarantee of due process.