ALBANY, N.Y. (Jan. 16, 2023) – A bill introduced in the New York Assembly would end civil asset forfeiture in the state and replace it with a criminal process. Passage of the bill would also effectively opt the state out of a program that allows police to circumvent more strict state forfeiture laws by passing cases off to the feds.
Asm. Pamela Hunter (D) and a coalition of eight Democrats introduced Assembly Bill 641 (A641) on Jan. 11. The legislation would replace the state’s civil asset forfeiture process with a criminal process. Under the new process, forfeiture could only occur if the “prosecuting authority secures a conviction of a crime that authorizes the forfeiture of property and the prosecuting authority establishes by clear and convincing evidence the property is an instrumentality of or proceeds derived directly from the crime for which the state secured a conviction.”
A641 would also address the “policing for profit” motive inherent in civil asset forfeiture by requiring the state treasurer to deposit forfeiture proceeds into the general fund after payment of specific allowable expenses. Under current law, police can keep up to 60 percent of forfeiture proceeds in New York.
Passage of the bill would effectively opt New York out of a federal program that allows state and local police to get around more strict state asset forfeiture laws. This is particularly important in light of a policy directive issued in July 2017 by then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions for the Department of Justice (DOJ) that remains in effect today.
While some people believe the Supreme Court “ended asset forfeiture, its 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.
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. The 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 can circumvent 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.
A641 directly addresses the federal equitable sharing program with the following language:
A law enforcement agency shall not offer for adoption any property seized under state law, to a federal agency for the purpose of forfeiture under the federal Controlled Substances Act, or other federal law unless such seized property includes United States currency that exceeds twenty thousand dollars.
Forfeiture proceedings for property seized by joint state/federal task forces would have to be prosecuted in state courts unless the seizure includes currency over $20,000. State and local law enforcement agencies would be prohibited from receiving equitable sharing funds if the federal government requires federal forfeiture in cases involving less than $20,000 in currency.
Most forfeitures fall below the $20,000 currency 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.
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.
A641 was referred to the Assembly Codes Committee where it must receive a hearing and pass by a majority vote before moving forward in the legislative process.