PROVIDENCE, R.I. (April 7, 2022) – On Tuesday, a Rhode Island Senate committee held a hearing on a bill that would repeal the state’s civil asset forfeiture process and replace it with nothing. But the legislation leaves a loophole open that would allow police to continue using asset forfeiture by partnering with the feds.

A coalition of four Democrats introduced Senate Bill 2389 (S2389) on Feb. 15. The legislation would repeal the entire state civil asset forfeiture process. If passed into law, state and local police could no longer engage in civil asset forfeiture under state law.

On April 5, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on S2389. The committee did not vote on the bill, instead, holding it “for further study.” This is a typical move in Rhode Island, giving committee members more time to consider the legislation. It can also be a maneuver to kill a bill without a vote.

While passage of this legislation would end state civil asset forfeiture in Rhode Island, it fails to address a loophole that allows state and local police to get around more strict state civil asset forfeiture laws in a vast majority of situations. This is particularly important in light of a 2017 policy directive issued by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions for the Department of Justice (DOJ) that remains in place today. Without opting out of the federal asset forfeiture program, police will have an easy avenue to circumvent these important reforms.

FEDERAL LOOPHOLE

Equitable Sharing” allows prosecutors to bypass more stringent state civil asset forfeiture laws by passing cases off to the federal government through a process known as adoption. The new DOJ directive reiterates full support for the equitable sharing program, directs federal law enforcement agencies to aggressively utilize it, and sets the stage to expand it in the future.

Law enforcement agencies often bypass more strict state forfeiture laws by claiming cases are federal in nature. 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. However, when states merely withdraw from participation, the federal directive loses its impact.

California faced this situation. The state has some of the strongest state-level restrictions on civil asset forfeiture in the country, but state and local police were circumventing the state process by passing cases to the feds. According to a report by the Institute for Justice, Policing for Profit, California ranked as the worst offender of all states in the country between 2000 and 2013. In other words, California law enforcement was passing off a lot of cases to the feds and collecting the loot. The state closed the loophole in 2016.

S2389 does not address this loophole. Without further legislation, Rhode Island law enforcement will continue to have a forfeiture process at their disposal even if the state process is eliminated.

The Rhode Island Senate should amend the current legislation with the following language to close the loophole and opt the state out of equitable sharing.

A local, county or state law enforcement agency shall not refer, transfer or otherwise relinquish possession of property seized under state law to a federal agency by way of adoption of the seized property or other means by the federal agency for the purpose of the property’s forfeiture under the federal Controlled Substances Act, Public Law 91 513-Oct. 27, 1970.under the federal Controlled Substances Act or other federal law.

In a case in which the aggregate net equity value of the property and currency seized has a value of $50,000 or less, excluding the value of contraband, a local, county or state law enforcement agency or participant in a joint task force or other multijurisdictional collaboration with the federal government (agency) shall transfer responsibility for the seized property to the state prosecuting authority for forfeiture under state law.

If the federal government prohibits the transfer of seized property and currency to the state prosecuting authority as required by paragraph (1) and instead requires the property be transferred to the federal government for forfeiture under federal law, the agency is prohibited from accepting payment of any kind or distribution of forfeiture proceeds from the federal government.

Very few cases exceed the $50,000 threshold.

As the Tenth Amendment Center previously reported the federal government inserted itself into the asset forfeiture debate in California. The feds clearly want the policy to continue.

Why?

We can only guess. But perhaps the feds recognize paying state and local police agencies directly in cash for handling their enforcement would reveal their weakness. After all, the federal government would find it nearly impossible to prosecute its unconstitutional “War on Drugs” without state and local assistance. Asset forfeiture “equitable sharing” provides a pipeline the feds use to incentivize state and local police to serve as de facto arms of the federal government by funneling billions of dollars into their budgets.

NECESSARY

While some people believe the Supreme Court “ended asset forfeiture,” the Supreme Court opinion in Timbs v. Indiana ended nothing. Without further action, civil asset forfeiture remains. Additionally, as law professor Ilya Somin noted, the Court left an important issue unresolved. What exactly counts as “excessive” in the civil forfeiture context?

“That is likely to be a hotly contested issue in the lower federal courts over the next few years. The ultimate effect of today’s decision depends in large part on how that question is resolved. If courts rule that only a few unusually extreme cases qualify as excessive, the impact of Timbs might be relatively marginal.”

Going forward, opponents of civil asset forfeiture could wait and see how lower federal courts will address this “over the next few years,” or they can do what a number of states have already taken steps to do, end the practice on a state level, and opt out of the federal equitable sharing program as well.

WHAT’S NEXT

S2389 must pass the Judiciary Committee by a majority vote before moving forward in the legislative process.

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