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Civil forfeiture: Closing the federal loophole

After taking a big step forward last year to reform New Hampshire’s civil forfeiture laws, the Legislature is set to take a step back.

When law enforcement agencies seized the assets of suspected criminals, those agencies could keep those assets if the defendant was acquitted, or even if no charges were actually filed.

New Hampshire recently updated its civil forfeiture laws to require a criminal conviction before property could be forfeited. This restored the fundamental right to due process.

But the reform does not apply to assets seized by the U.S. Department of Justice. Under the DOJ Equitable Sharing Program, state and local law enforcement agencies get a cut of forfeited assets, even if the defendant is never convicted. The feds keep 20 percent, with 80 percent going back to the state or local agency. That provides a huge incentive for local prosecutors to circumvent the state system.

HB 614, which easily passed the House in March, would require New Hampshire authorities to abide by state asset protection laws for cases involving less than $100,000 in seized assets. This would not interfere with how cases could be prosecuted and would allow federal authorities to take the lead on the biggest cases.

Yet the Senate Judiciary Committee is recommending against HB 614.

The Legislature has worked hard to improve New Hampshire’s civil forfeiture law. HB 614 is a necessary step to protect property rights of the accused.

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