The Montana Supreme Court made it tougher for law enforcement there to seize cash and property. On Nov. 2 the court ruled unanimously that residents have a right to a jury trial before facing civil forfeiture -- the controversial tool that allows authorities to take and profit from the assets of suspected criminals.
The practice is aimed at making it harder for drug dealers and big-time criminals to reap the spoils of breaking the law, while also improving the ability of law enforcement to fight crime. According to The Huffington Post, authorities seize property -- houses, vehicles, etc. -- involved in, or acquired through, crime. They can then sell the assets and keep a portion of the profits for themselves. In some states, that share is as high as 100 percent.
"Civil forfeiture enables the government to recover property when criminal prosecution of the possessor of the property may not be appropriate or feasible,” the Justice Department argued to congress in a written testimony in 2015, according to The Washington Post.
Indeed, in many states, assets can be seized based on simple suspicion alone, and convictions are rare. What’s worse, opponents argue, in some states (including Montana, up until 2015), when individuals have their property taken, it’s up to them to prove that it wasn’t involved in criminal activity to get it back.
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A 2015 report by the Institute for Justice found that 87 percent of federal forfeiture cases weren’t criminal and couldn’t even result in convictions.
The Montana case, however, was brought by a farmer whose case was criminal. Mike Chilinski was convicted of federal drug charges in 2013 after hundreds of marijuana plants were discovered on his land, according to The Associated Press.
The local government attempted to seize his land, but he fought back, arguing that because the state hadn’t found him guilty, they lacked the authority. The decision doesn’t end his fight, but it does mean he’ll get to argue his case in front of a jury.
Critics argue that over the last decade, law enforcement agencies have turned to using civil forfeiture as a means of closing budget shortfalls in the face of funding cuts and the recession. Between 2001 and 2014, authorities seized over $2.5 billion in just cash, according to a Washington Post report.
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The case in Montana comes over a year after the state passed a law prohibiting law enforcement from seizing property from citizens that haven’t been charged with a crime.
"It used to be a pretty easy process for the state," University of Montana law professor Andrew King-Ries told the AP. "That process is going to get more difficult and cumbersome, so the state may make the decision more often not to pursue forfeiture."
That’s good news for groups like the ACLU that have been fighting against the practice for years.
The Montana law, and the ruling, only apply to state and local authorities, however. Under the federal government’s Equitable Share Program, local departments can receive up to 80 percent of the value of the assets they turn over to the Justice Department.
Payments from the federal program were halted in 2015 due to budget shortfalls, but resumed in March, The Washington Post reports. Some states, such as New Mexico, have passed legislation barring local police from turning over property to the feds.