The notion of local or state law enforcement agencies seizing property in connection with the filing of charges probably doesn't sound especially shocking to most people. What may be shocking, however, is to learn that these property seizures can also occur absent the filing of any charges.
Indeed, the civil asset forfeiture law here in Illinois currently dictates that law enforcement agencies have the authority to take personal property -- vehicles, money, homes, etc. -- if it's merely suspected to be involved in some manner of illegal conduct. In other words, a person can see their property taken absent a conviction, the filing of formal charges or even an arrest.
Consider also that once property is seized, the onus is on the property owner -- not the state -- to demonstrate that their property should not be permanently forfeited and that they have no right to appointed counsel. In other words, the property owner will need to either handle the matter themselves or retain legal representation.
As unfortunate as this reality is, the state's civil asset forfeiture law, which was recently assigned a D-minus rating by the Institute of Justice, is now on the precipice of meaningful reform.
That's because state lawmakers have sent a measure, House Bill 303, to the desk of Governor Bruce Rauner that, if signed, would fundamentally alter Illinois' civil asset forfeiture law once and for all.
As to what exactly HB 303 would accomplish, it calls for the creation of greater transparency into just how much property is being seized from residents. Far more significantly, however, it calls for shifting the burden of proof back to the state, such that law enforcement would need to demonstrate to a court why the property in question should be seized.
"The burden of proof now falls on the state," explained Rep. Will Guzzardi (D-Chicago). "So when the state takes your stuff they have to say, 'We can prove that it was involved in the commission of a crime,' rather than you, the property owner, having to prove that your stuff was not involved in the commission of a crime."
While criminal justice advocates were enthused by the measure, they did express concerns about the absence of a provision directing that all funds derived from civil asset forfeiture be deposited into a general fund accessible not just by law enforcement, but other groups providing crime prevention services.
The prospects of HB 303 being signed into law appear promising, particularly when you consider that it was passed unanimously by the Senate and received only one "no" vote in the House.
Stay tuned for updates ...
If you have questions about asset forfeiture or are facing charges for a major state felony, consider speaking with a skilled legal representation able to provide answers and pursue solutions.