In the past 12 years, more than $17 million of private property has been seized in Rhode Island. Sure, some of those assets are legitimately taken from criminals to terminate benefit from their ill-gotten gains. However, in many cases, people merely accused – not convicted – lose their private property. And once confiscated, Rhode Island law makes it difficult for owners to recover their rightful property.

Now, after decades of free-range government confiscation, Rhode Island’s civil forfeiture laws are targeted for overhaul. The Stephen Hopkins Center for Civil Rights has researched best practices in the other states that have adopted reforms, and drafted language new criminal forfeiture law that bi-partisan sponsors and Rhode Island legislators could support.

Senate Judiciary Committee will hear S2681 on Thursday, April 26 at the rise of the Senate. (We were told H7640 would be heard on Wednesday, but that is not confirmed according to the House Judiciary agenda as of 10 p.m. April 23. As of this moment, the bill is still considered “held for further study.”)

In part, H7640 and S2681 define the purpose of the proposed legislation as “(1) deter criminal activity by reducing its economic incentives; (2) increase the pecuniary loss from criminal activity; (3) protect against the wrongful forfeiture of property; and (4) ensure that only criminal forfeiture is allowed in this state.”

Supported by the Center for Freedom and Prosperity, business groups, the RI ACLU, the RI Families Coalition, and civil society leaders, a rewrite of existing statutes includes the following key features:

  1. Raised the bar for seizures: Avoids government taking for civil violations and from non-defendant property owners and co-owners, while also building-in legal protections before the state seizes property.
  2. Lowered the bar for due process: Provides less-burdensome, prompt, and streamlined legal procedures for innocent property owners to reclaim seized assets.
  3. Increased transparency: Greater transparency around forfeiture actions so that public officials and citizens have the data to provide appropriate oversight. Replacing a minimal four-line report mandated under current law, a new four-page report requires keeping track of and reporting how much the government seizes, whether property owners are ever convicted of a crime, and how much money comes in from those seizures.
  4. Enhanced administration: Improves administration of forfeiture programs in order to increase the credibility of law enforcement as they conduct permitted seizures; including prohibition of sale of assets for any person’s gain and a streamlined process for returning property.
  5. Budget accountability: Unelected bureaucrats in state and local agencies would not manage profits from asset forfeitures, free from public accountability. Legitimately seized moneys would be under the supervision of duly elected officials.
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