Civil forfeiture bill advances



Editor’s note: Rep. Steve Harris was misidentified in the original version of this article.

BOISE — The House Judiciary, Rules and Administration Committee has given the thumbs-up to a bill that would limit civil asset forfeiture in Idaho.

The bill was jointly crafted over two years by Rep. Steve Harris, a conservative Republican from Meridian, and Rep. Ilana Rubel, a Boise Democrat. They jointly presented the bill, which is backed by ideologically diverse groups including the American Civil Liberties Union, the Idaho Freedom Foundation and the Institute for Justice.

“We all want to fight hard against drugs,” Harris said. “… But some of the civil asset forfeiture in Idaho and other states cross the line of due process and could create perverse incentives.”

Rubel emphasized that no drug dealer should be able to keep “ill-gotten gains.”

“Yes, the state should always be able to take drug money, but it should not be able to take your waitressing tips,” she said.

Harris said no instances of abuse have been documented in Idaho, though instances have been documented throughout the nation.

One, documented by The Washington Post in 2014, involved a Virginia man named Mandrel Stuart. After being stopped in 2012 for having tinted windows and a video playing within his line of sight, police stripped him of nearly $18,000 in cash he had earned at a restaurant he owned on suspicion that it was earned in a drug deal — though there was no evidence supporting the suspicion. An extensive search of his car turned up about 0.01 grams of marijuana in the bottom of a plastic bag that was being used to hold DVDs.

Stuart was never charged with any crime, but the police kept his money. He had to hire a lawyer to sue the government to get it back.

He ultimately won his money back and was awarded nearly $12,000 more to pay his attorney’s fees. But in the intervening time, Stuart’s restaurant folded because he was unable to pay his bills.

Harris noted that an intern who had helped to research the issue had tried in vain to document the prevalence of civil asset forfeiture in Idaho because there are no reporting requirements. The bill would add such reporting requirements.

“We’re finding that there isn’t much that’s kept or recorded in this area,” he said.

Rep. Christy Perry, R-Nampa, said she had faced worries like that herself. She and her husband once purchased a jet boat in Washington, she told the committee. The owner would only take cash, so they drove with a large sum across the border to complete the purchase. She said her two biggest worries were getting robbed or getting pulled over by the police.

The bill would limit the use of civil asset forfeiture to high-level drug cases including trafficking, excluding its use from simple possession cases. It also would give defendants with seized assets, such as a vehicle, a way to temporarily get their property back by posting a bond.

The bill drew opposition from the Idaho Sheriffs’ Association and the Idaho State Police, though the Idaho Prosecuting Attorneys Association and the Fraternal Order of Police withdrew objections they had raised with a prior draft.

Sheriffs’ association lobbyist Michael Kane said the bill would “put the thumb on the scale in favor of the drug trafficker.”

The key provision they objected to is one that police finding a large sum of cash on a person isn’t grounds for asset forfeiture, unless police find some other circumstantial evidence of involvement in drug trafficking.

Kane said the way it is currently worded, it may prevent police from even seizing such cash. And often the evidence that cash is ill-gotten is found later, he said.

Rubel pointed out that since asset forfeiture occurs in civil court, those whose assets are seized aren’t provided a public defender. They will often choose to “roll over” and give up their property, particularly if the attorneys fees could be more than the value of their property.

“It’s inconsistent with due process to profile people solely on the basis of being in possession of cash,” Rubel argued.

Committee chairman and lawyer Rep. Lynn Luker, R-Boise, said he didn’t buy that it would be overly hard for police to demonstrate drug involvement under the bill. It only requires a very minimal amount of evidence, he said.

The bill was overwhelmingly approved in a voice vote, with both Republicans and Democrats in favor.

“I’d like to commend both of you on this. It’s long been needed,” said Rep. Ron Nate, R-Rexburg.

The only opposition came from a few staunchly tough-on-crime Republicans, including Rep. Luke Malek, a former Kootenai County prosecutor, and Rep. Patrick McDonald, a former Idaho State Police officer.

The bill now heads to the House floor.

Reporter Bryan Clark can be reached at 542-6751.