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Civil forfeiture law helps keep authorities honest
Cops and courts are there to keep the rest of us honest, but who keeps them in line?
In this case, it's the Nebraska Legislature, which passed LB 1106, and Gov. Pete Ricketts, who signed the bill Tuesday to reduce the opportunity for abuse of due process and private property rights through civil forfeiture.
Under the law, Nebraska requires a criminal conviction for illegal drugs, child pornography or illegal gambling to lose their cash, vehicles, firearms or real estate.
The ACLU points to abuse such as $14,000 seized from a Peruvian pastor during a traffic stop and $63,000 in savings seized from a decorated Air Force veteran even though he was never charged with a crime. A federal appellate court upheld that forfeiture.
The law makes it harder for state and local agencies to receive up to 80 percent of civil forfeitures by participating in a federal program known as "equitable sharing" banning state and local agencies from transferring seized cash and property under $25,000.
Between 2000 and 2013, Nebraska law enforcement collected more than $48 million in federal forfeiture funds, according to a report by the Institute for Justice. The Washington Post identified 889 cash seizures in Nebraska "from people who were not charged with a crime and without a warrant being issued" since 9/11.
But a constitution amendment would be required to remove the state's incentive to seize property from people who have never been charged with a crime.
Nebraska voters approved a state constitutional amendment in 1984 to allocate 50 percent of drug forfeiture funds to law enforcement and the other half to schools.
Since 2011, agencies have received more than $3 million in forfeiture from state law.
There's no doubt that property forfeiture is appropriate in the majority of cases, and the process is an important tool for law enforcement and prosecutors.
And it's true that the new law may allow criminals to keep more of their ill-gotten gain.
But occasionally allowing guilty people to go unpunished is the price for preserving freedom for the rest of us.