ACLU praises asset forfeiture reforms

Published 10:35 am Friday, February 6, 2015

Special to The Tidewater News

The American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia is praising the Virginia House of Delegates for passing a bill that would require a conviction in asset forfeiture cases — curbing what one critic called “policing for profit.”

The House on Tuesday voted 92-6 in favor of HB 1287, whose chief sponsors were Republican Del. Mark Cole of Spotsylvania and Democratic Del. Scott Surovell of Mount Vernon.

The bill, co-sponsored by a bipartisan mix of 20 other legislators, will now go to the Senate.

Virginia’s Forfeited Asset Sharing Program allows sheriff’s offices and local prosecutors to keep 90 percent of the proceeds from seized assets, which can include cash, cars and other property.

That is allowed if the forfeitures have a substantial connection to drug offenses. Currently under Virginia law, the person whose money or property is taken does not have to be convicted or even charged with a crime for money to be seized and forfeited. Since 1991, law enforcement agencies in Virginia have taken in more than $91 million in asset forfeitures.

“The commonwealth should not be able to take and keep a person’s money or property unless they can prove that person is guilty of a crime,” Cole said. “Civil asset forfeiture without a conviction violates this fundamental principle of American justice. I hope the Senate will support my bill, which tackles this problem head on.”

The ACLU of Virginia voiced support for HB 1287 at two legislative hearings in January.

“This House vote makes clear that the people’s voices are being heard loud and clear by their elected representatives in Richmond,” said Rob Poggenklass, the Tony Dunn Legal Fellow at the ACLU of Virginia. “HB 1287 will help end policing for profit in the commonwealth. We hope the Senate will move quickly to pass this important legislation.”

One of the sponsors of HB 1287 is Sen. Charles W. Carrico, R-Galax. Carrico had filed an identical Senate bill – SB 684. The Senate Courts of Justice Committee killed Carrico’s bill in January.