Bipartisan bill seeks to end civil forfeiture in Delaware

DOVER – Delaware lawmakers unveiled bipartisan legislation Wednesday that would end a practice that allows police to seize cash and property from anyone simply suspected of being involved in criminal activity.

Known as civil asset forfeiture, the controversial procedure has allowed law enforcement the right to take money, cars and other property from citizens without a conviction.

The system has come under fire for not requiring the accused be found guilty in a court of law. Opponents note it results in innocent citizens being deprived of what is rightfully theirs.

The watchdog group Institute for Justice gave Delaware a D- for its civil forfeiture laws which place the burden of proof on the accused.

“In America, the government should not be able to take your property unless they can prove you did something wrong,” Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover, said at a news conference.

Sen. Colin Bonini

Sen. Colin Bonini

Sen. Bonini is the main sponsor of legislation to eliminate civil asset forfeiture entirely and require a conviction before anything can be seized by police.

Currently, valuables seized by law enforcement are to be used by the attorney general to support various programs focused on public safety. Money is deposited into the Special Law Enforcement Assistance Fund, which is exempt from public records requests.

Civil asset forfeiture has taken in to government $750,000 to $1 million per year over the past half-decade, according to Sen. Bonini.

The fund would be eliminated entirely under the legislation. Any property taken from people found guilty of criminal activity would go to the state’s General Fund.

Delaware State Police did not return a request for comment.

Gov. Jack Markell has not yet seen the bill, according to his office.

A spokesman for Attorney General Matt Denn said the idea “will have to be reviewed.”

The proposed bill brings together lawmakers from the far left and the far right and is backed by dissimilar organizations.

“The current system challenges two basic American values, which are the right to private property and the right to due process. When the government is given the power to seize and keep assets, hold assets when somebody is not even arrested for a crime let alone convicted of a crime, we think that’s an overstepping of power of the government,” said Kathleen MacRae, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Delaware.

The measure would include provisions allowing people who believe their property has been wrongfully confiscated to appeal through the courts. It would also prohibit the state handing an investigation over to federal authorities solely to allow property to be seized through a civil process.

The state took about $560,000 per year from the federal Department of Justice’s forfeiture program from 2000 to 2013.

The proposal would not apply retroactively.

Sen. Bonini stressed that he does not believe Delaware State Police abuse the power, but a co-sponsor said the lack of oversight means the practice is shrouded in secrecy.

“Do keep in mind, without transparency, you can’t know, so one of the reasons to do transparency, just transparency alone, is so you can have confidence when you say there’s no abuse of the system. We really don’t have the tools to be able to judge,” said Rep. Paul Baumbach, D-Newark, who noted he has faith in state police.

Sen. Bonini said he is open to adding amendments if the legislation faces objection, although he is aiming for the total elimination of civil asset forfeiture.

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