House Bill 347 Aims to Reform Ohio Civil Asset Forfeiture Law

Carrying a large amount of cash is risky. The fear of theft or losing the money is palpable, but new, unlikely culprits have emerged — culprits with a badge and a gun.

In recent years, thousands of people nationwide have forfeited large amounts of cash and other property seized by the police without an arrest, a trial, or a conviction. Known as “civil asset forfeiture,” the practice allows law enforcement to seize personal property based only on the suspicion that the property is linked to criminal activity. The government then often legally sells or keeps the proceeds of its ill-gotten gains.

The concept of “innocent until proven guilty,” a hallmark of the American criminal justice system, does not apply under many current civil asset forfeiture laws.

Once money or property is seized, getting it returned is difficult and costly and sometimes takes a year or more, in part because the law shifts the burden of proof from the government to the person whose cash or property was seized, forcing him or her to prove that it was not acquired illegally. The government will sometimes even go as far as suing the cash (you read that correctly) in an effort to make the rightful owner prove that the cash was not acquired illegally.

Under existing Ohio law (Ohio Revised Code Title XXIX, Chapter 2981), the authorities can seize cash or other property, including real estate and vehicles, if they suspect it is connected with a crime — even when no charges are filed. If you want your money back after it is seized, you need to go to court and fight the government.

If you have had money or property seized by the police or another law enforcement agency, you should seek the advice of an experienced attorney who will help you fight the seizure and work to get all your cash or property returned to you.

Call the criminal defense attorneys at the Joslyn Law Firm to learn more about forfeiture law in Columbus, Ohio, in Franklin County, Ohio, and surrounding areas.

The attorneys at the Joslyn Law Firm can explain the important deadlines that apply after a notice of seizure is issued or a seizure occurs in Ohio, so don’t delay. We can represent you at an adversarial preliminary hearing and in subsequent court appearances, if necessary. Let us put our experience to work for you.

Forfeiture Reaps Billions for Law Enforcement Coffers

Law enforcement agencies often rely on forfeiture to contribute to their operating budgets, even though the law was not initially intended that way and the law specifically prohibits seized assets from funding certain police activities.

Designed to help fight large drug trafficking organizations as part of the “war on drugs,” civil asset forfeiture has mushroomed into a cash cow for law enforcement, an activity its critics say is motivated by profit rather than crime-fighting.

A 2014 report in the Washington Post found that, under the U.S. Department of Justice’s Asset Forfeiture Program (AFP), police seized $2.5 billion in money and property nationally since 2001 from nearly 62,000 people who were not charged with a crime and without issuing a warrant. In order to seize the assets, all the police had to do was suspect that the assets were crime-related.

These seizures often occur during traffic stops, giving new meaning to the phrase “highway robbery.” Airports are another popular place for civil asset seizures. Law enforcement has also seized homes, boats, and other valuable property under civil asset forfeiture laws.

About $1.7 billion of the $2.5 billion seized from 2001-2014 eventually went to state and local law enforcement agencies while the other $800 million went to federal agencies such as the Department of Justice and the Department of Homeland Security, the Post reported; the median amount of a seizure was $8,800.

Only about one in six of the 62,000 seizures were legally challenged, the Post reported, in part because of the expense of fighting against the government. But in 41 percent of the seizures that were challenged, the government agreed to return money.

The appeals process took more than a year in 40 percent of the cases that were challenged, and often required owners of the cash to sign agreements not to sue police over the seizures, the Post said. Defendants also had to pay their own legal bills.

A report titled “Federal seizure program that benefits cops called ‘legal robbery'” in the Cincinnati Enquirer and other news outlets in September 2015 said that federal and local authorities across the country have seized more than $4.1 billion in assets since 2006.

The Institute for Justice, a non-profit legal group based in suburban Washington D.C., reported on its web site that Ohio law enforcement agencies received more than $83 million from the federal Equitable Sharing Program over nine years from 2000-2008.  The Institute for Justice sued the city of Philadelphia in 2014 over its civil asset forfeiture laws.

Challenging Forfeiture Laws

Critics of civil asset forfeiture portray it as “legal robbery” — comedian John Oliver lambasted the practice on his HBO show “Last Week Tonight” in October 2015 and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) laments “police abuse of civil asset forfeiture has shaken our nation’s conscience.” Advocates point to the benefits of using the proceeds of civil asset forfeiture to outfit law enforcement with new equipment and combat illegal drugs.

Forfeiture laws that allow police to seize cash or other property and keep it have been attacked on due process and constitutional grounds in several states in recent years. Notably, New Mexico and Montana both reformed their forfeiture laws in 2015 and bills to reform forfeiture in Michigan were sent to that state’s governor for his signature in October 2015.

In Ohio, two lawmakers introduced a bill in the state legislature in September 2015 seeking to reform the state’s existing forfeiture law.

Ohio House Bill 347, filed by Rep. Robert McColley and Rep. Thomas E. Brinkman, Jr., would repeal certain parts of the existing law while adding and revising other sections. Much of the wording of the proposed changes to Ohio law is similar to the wording of the new laws enacted in New Mexico and Montana and the one pending in Michigan.

The Ohio bill seeks to change the legal standard of proof to one where the government must show “clear and convincing evidence” of a crime that permits forfeiture instead of relying on the current, lesser standard of a “preponderance of the evidence” (§2981.09(A), proposed). (The standard for a criminal proceeding is that guilt must be proven “beyond a reasonable doubt.”)

The proposal also would prohibit local police from coordinating with federal authorities unless the amount of property seized was more than $50,000.

Overwhelming Public Support

In a September 2015 poll of Ohio residents conducted for the U.S. Justice Action Network and its non-profit advocacy group, Fix Forfeiture, 81 percent of respondents said Ohio’s civil asset forfeiture law was “in need of reform,” while only 7 percent believed the current system is “working well now.”

Fix Forfeiture’s message is that forfeiture is clearly an area ripe for reform, and fixing it will be a significant step toward making Ohio’s criminal justice system smarter, fairer, and more effective.

Keep in mind that although positive changes to Ohio forfeiture law are underway and have broad public support, law enforcement officials certainly won’t give up such a windfall of cash without a fight. Current laws impose strict deadlines how much time you have to challenge a civil asset seizure, so if your money or property have been seized, you should act quickly to protect it from forfeiture.

The Joslyn Law Firm represents clients whose cash, property, or other assets have been seized by law enforcement in Columbus, Ohio, as well as Franklin County, Delaware County, Madison County, Licking County, Fairfield County, and Pickaway County, Ohio. Call us today. Our experienced criminal defense attorneys in Columbus, Ohio, are ready to explain Ohio’s current civil asset forfeiture laws to you and fight for your rights — and your property.