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Harmon measure targets Illinois’ murky police property seizure laws

harmon 021717SPRINGFIELD – The controversial practice of “policing for profit” in Illinois would come to an end under a massive overhaul of the state’s civil asset forfeiture law sponsored by Senator Don Harmon (D-Oak Park).

Senate Bill 1578 would require more accountability of law enforcement agencies that seize property while investigating possible crimes and more transparency on behalf of innocent property owners who want to get their belongings back.

As currently written, Illinois law incentivizes police agencies and prosecutors to seize cash, cars, land and other property from people suspected of – but not necessarily charged with or convicted of – criminal activity. The property frequently is forfeited and auctioned off, with proceeds going into the police department coffers.

“Illinois has allowed a system to take root in which grandparents, for example, can be exploited by the justice system simply because they loaned their only car to a relative whom they didn’t realize had a revoked license. The next thing they know, that relative is in jail, the car is impounded, and they have limited recourse for getting it back,” Harmon said.

asset forfeitCritics of the state’s current law cite numerous problems with it. For example, it’s unclear if probable cause is a requirement for police to seize property in Illinois. Even if an owner is never charged or convicted of a crime, law enforcement agencies are not obligated to return property that was seized during an investigation.

Further, current state law makes it especially difficult for people to reclaim their property through the court system.

Senate Bill 1578 would improve the civil asset forfeiture law by doing the following:

  • Remove all financial incentive for police agencies to seize property.
  • Require probable cause for a civil asset seizure.
  • Require the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority to create a searchable public database for seized and forfeited property.
  • Require an annual accounting of expenditures from asset forfeiture proceeds.
  • Create a fund where forfeiture proceeds would be deposited for disbursement to organizations for specific purposes, such as mental health and substance abuse services, law enforcement programs or state’s attorneys.
  • Require a conviction before proceeding with a forfeiture, with limited exceptions.
  • Require that property be returned within five days if a state’s attorney determines the owner is not responsible for the seizure.
  • Require an itemized receipt for seized property be given to the owner.
  • Remove the cash security a person must deposit when petitioning the court for release of the property due to substantial hardship.

Harmon noted that Illinois’ asset forfeiture guidelines are written into 25 different laws that authorize police and state’s attorneys to seize property in cases involving everything from drug investigations and money laundering to DUIs and basic traffic stops. The result is a convoluted system that can be difficult to navigate.

According to a 2016 report co-authored by the ACLU of Illinois and the Illinois Policy Institute, Illinois police agencies collect about $30 million every year from forfeited property.

“Illinois is overdue for a rewrite of this part of our criminal justice code. We should have taken care of this long ago, and I am more than happy to make this one of my priorities this spring,” Harmon said. “I think the changes we’ve proposed in this legislation address many of the recommendations that have been brought to our attention and, in fact, go even further.”

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