Legislation on Delaware asset forfeiture does little to curb it

DOVER — The Delaware House of Representatives passed by overwhelming margins and with very little debate a bill aimed at removing public-records exemptions surrounding civil asset forfeiture, even as some expressed doubt the proposal has any teeth.

Civil asset forfeiture, the practice of law enforcement seizing possessions or cash from someone believed to be involved in criminal activity, has come under scrutiny recently, especially in Delaware, which has a broad system that provides little protection to civilians.

No conviction or even criminal charge is needed for police to seize private property. Furthermore, the council that doles out money gained through civil forfeiture is exempt from public-records requests.

The legislation approved Tuesday would remove the Freedom of Information Act exemption from the Special Law Enforcement Assistance Fund Committee — with a catch. Law enforcement agencies would be allowed to submit requests to the committee and then withdraw them if the body rules the applications are public records.

Petitions pulled back in this manner would remain hidden from the public.

John L. Mitchell Jr.

John L. Mitchell Jr.

Main sponsor Rep. John “Larry” Mitchell, D-Elsmere, said he wants to “open up” the process. But he believes the carve-out is “something that’s needed,” despite the fact information related to active investigations and security risks is already exempt from FOIA.

“You obviously have drug investigations, investigations that really don’t require a whole lot of public output there and they really have to really be concerned of what information because you have to remember, all these applications that are being submitted, most of the time they’re active investigations, so that you certainly don’t want to disclose information,” he said.

Because details relating to police investigations are immune from FOIA, something the bill would not change, the measure’s actual impact appears limited.

The proposal, House Bill 309, passed 36-4, with one lawmaker absent, sending it to the Senate.

Rep. Sean Lynn, D-Dover, was one of those four opposed to the bill.

“It doesn’t go nearly far enough,” he said. “They haven’t addressed the underlying civil forfeitures, which fund it, and then No. 2, it still has not been explained to me why it requires FOIA protection at all.”

Rep. Mitchell, a former police officer, said many of the purchases made through SLEAF are for equipment or involve training and investigations.

Legislation introduced in April by Sen. Colin Bonini, R-Dover, would place limitations on the practice of civil asset forfeiture. However, the bill has yet to be heard in the Senate Public Safety Committee.

Sunday hunting

In the Senate, legislators passed a bill authorizing hunting on some public and private lands on five Sundays. The bill, the result of lengthy discussions, allows for hunting on designated Sundays in October, November and December.

The Delaware Department of Natural Resources and Environmental Control will hold public hearings to choose the times and locations for allowable Sunday hunting.

The legislation passed 14-7, despite objections from some lawmakers that the activity would disrupt people wanting to use public parks for hiking, biking and horseback riding.

“We’re looking at taking five Sundays out of two of the nicest months of the year,” Sen. Karen Peterson, D-Stanton, said.

Supporters noted hunters pay fees to support public parks and deserve to be able to take advantage of them at least in limited use on Sundays.

An amendment that would have allowed hunting only until noon for applicable Sundays in October and November was voted down.

The legislation previously passed the House, meaning it now goes to the desk of Gov. Jack Markell

Staff writer Matt Bittle can be reached at 741-8250 or mbittle@newszap.com. Follow @MatthewCBittle on Twitter.

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