Asset forfeiture has recently come under scrutiny in our country. Many police officers are abusing their power and seizing assets from people of color and those with lower incomes as opposed to large-scale drug enterprises, which is why the law was passed in the first place.
Luckily, our state – along with numerous other states – is seeking to reform these unfair laws that violate a person’s due process rights.
Let’s first look at what happens during asset forfeiture and how Illinois hopes to change this practice in the near future.
What Is Asset Forfeiture?
According to Illinois Policy, “Asset forfeiture is the legal process by which the government may permanently confiscate a person’s property.”
Why is your property allowed to be confiscated, though?
If a law enforcement officer suspects that the property – cash, personal property, vehicle, real estate – was obtained due to a crime (usually a drug crime) or is going to be used to commit a crime, then the property can be seized.
All an officer needs is probable cause to seize your property. The officer doesn’t even have to charge you with a crime – he or she just needs to think that it was intended for a crime or that it was in your possession due to a crime.
Even worse, if you want to get your property back, you have to go to court and prove that you are innocent of any crime. The exact opposite of innocent until proven guilty.
Asset forfeiture was first introduced as a way to deter drug cartels and bigger crime organizations, but unfortunately they’re not the ones who are most frequently affected. Who is? A survey conducted by Reason found that seizures were heaviest in low-income neighborhoods, and the average estimate of a seizure was $4,553.
In a statement to Reason, Lucy Parsons Labs said, “This data shows what we already know, that the seizures…overwhelmingly steal the possessions of poor people.”
On top of that, police and state prosecutors in Illinois get to keep up to 90 percent of the revenue from asset forfeitures, which is essentially an incentive to stop people and conduct seizures simply based on an inkling of suspicion.
Reforming Illinois’ Asset Forfeiture Laws
The Illinois General Assembly recently passed a bill – which is now awaiting the governor’s signature – that seeks to reform asset forfeiture practices. The bill received great support from both parties: it was approved unanimously in the Illinois state senate and only had one dissenting vote in the house.
The bill changes some major aspects of the current asset forfeiture law, such as:
- Law enforcement officers will need to have a preponderance of evidence to conduct a seizure instead of mere probable cause.
- Seizures under $500 will no longer be allowed.
- Small amounts of drugs will not warrant a seizure.
- The government has to prove the property owner is guilty of a crime instead of the other way around.
- The property owner no longer has to pay 10 percent of the property’s value to contest the seizure.
- The process of getting your property back will be expedited.
- Seizure and forfeiture data will have to be publicly reported.
This bill aims to protect innocent citizens from having their rights violated and their property unjustly taken. If you are the victim of unwarranted asset forfeiture or have been accused of a drug crime you didn’t commit, reach out to an experienced Illinois criminal defense attorney to fight for your right to justice.
About the Author:
Andrew M. Weisberg is a former felony prosecutor who now serves as a defense attorney in the greater Chicago area. He has extensive experience in handling all types of criminal cases, from sex offenses and domestic violence to retail theft-related crimes, murder, and drug crimes.