CONCORD, N.H. (April 26, 2021) A New Hampshire bill that would take a big step toward opting out of a federal asset forfeiture program sailed through the House, but has run into trouble in the Senate thanks to fierce law enforcement opposition.
A coalition of seven Republicans filed House Bill 331 (HB331) on Jan 6. The legislation would prohibit any state or local law enforcement agency from offering property seized under state law to a federal agency for transfer or adoption unless the seized property includes United States currency in excess of $100,000. The law would not apply to property seized by joint task forces.
The proposed law initially applied to seizures by federal task forces as well, but the bill was amended in the House to appease law enforcement lobbyists. Even with the change, they’re still lobbying aggressively against the bill.
Passage of HB331 would prohibit the transfer of the vast majority of state asset forfeiture cases to the federal government. Reporting in some areas has shown that 85 percent of seizures received by law enforcement agencies through the federal equitable sharing program did not meet a much-lesser threshold of just $50,000.
HB331 passed the House on a voice vote, but the bill was deemed “inexpedient to legislate” by the Senate Judiciary Committee. This means HB331 faces an uphill battle in the full Senate.
A federal program known as “Equitable Sharing” allows prosecutors to bypass more stringent state asset forfeiture laws by passing cases off to the federal government through a process known as adoption. Law enforcement agencies can circumvent more strict state forfeiture laws by claiming cases are federal in nature. This allows police to seize people’s cash and property even if they are neve charged with a crime. Under these arrangements, state officials simply hand cases over to a federal agency, participate in the case, and then receive up to 80 percent of the proceeds.
Law enforcement lobbyists have aggressively opposed HB331. The reason is simple – they like the cash that the unconstitutional federal asset forfeiture program funnels into their budget. Of course, they tell the public it’s a matter of public safety. They even claim it’s “for the children.” One lobbyist said police departments need the money to give to charities.
Rep Mike Sylvia, one of the bill’s prime sponsors, wrote the following letter to the Union Leader.
The state senate will be voting on a bill in their upcoming session which limits circumvention of our state’s criminal asset forfeiture law. In 2016 NH abandoned civil asset forfeiture in favor of requiring the due process protections required in a criminal proceeding.
The federal government maintains a program called Equitable Sharing which allows law enforcement to circumvent our state’s criminal process. Funds forfeited in the federal process return 80% directly to the agency, by-passing normal appropriations (and oversight) of legislative bodies. This is compared to our state’s law which returns 45 percent to the agency, gives 45 percent to a fund held by the Attorney General, and the remainder to Health and Human Service for treatment services. As you can see there is a strong incentive to elude the state’s law.
HB331 would prohibit law enforcement agencies, operating solely under state seizure law, from transferring seizures of $100,000 or less in cash to the Equitable Sharing program. This bill is limited as to not interfere with joint task forces operations, which are excluded from consideration under this bill.
The vast majority of all forfeitures are below $10,000, affecting those with few resources to defend themselves, as opposed to the drug kingpins which are claimed to be the targets of civil asset forfeiture.
The senate judiciary committee voted to kill this bill which is in sharp contrast to the house judiciary committee which voted 18-2 to pass the bill. It passed the house, with no objection on the consent calendar.
HB331 will come up for a vote in the full Senate on April 29. If you live in New Hampshire, contact your state Senator and urge them to vote yes on HB331. You can find contact information for your senator HERE.
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