The Massachusetts Senate passed a bill Thursday to reform the civil forfeiture system, raising the legal bar that law enforcement must meet to seize and keep people’s money and property in suspected drug crimes.
Massachusetts currently allows district attorneys the lowest legal burden of proof to keep property that’s hidden as part of a forfeiture proceeding, even when no drug charges are ever filed. The commonwealth is the only state in the country with this standard – probable cause – on the books.
“We view ourselves as a socially progressive state with strong protection for civil liberties. But our current laws on civil asset forfeiture are anything but, and reforming in this area is long overdue,” said Senate Majority Leader Cynthia Creem, a Newton Democrat and lead sponsor of the bill.
The measure, which passed in a 31-9 vote, would require prosecutors to meet a “preponderance of evidence” standard in forfeitures cases, in order to keep people’s property. District attorneys would not be able to pursue forfeiture cases on amounts of less than $250.
The measure also provides the right to counsel to indigent individuals in these cases.
The push for reform on Beacon Hill comes after a WBUR investigation last year with ProPublica revealed that the Worcester County district attorney was stockpiling people’s money for years.
In more than 500 instances between 2016 and 2019, District Attorney Joseph Early, Jr. waited a decade or more before notifying people that he had their money and giving them a chance to get it back.
WBUR’s examination of all forfeitures filed in that county in 2018 also found that of the hundreds of incidents, nearly one in four — or 24% — had no accompanying drug conviction or criminal drug case filing. Even so, law enforcement held onto the cash and property.
The new bill still allows law enforcement broad latitude in how they account for and spend forfeited funds. But it would establish a forfeiture tracking database where the Executive Office for Administration and Finance would gather details about all hidden and forfeited property in the state, including value, date of seizure, any related crime and its outcome. That measure, included in an amendment by Sen. Rebecca Rausch, would create for the first time a mechanism for the state to monitor forfeitures and see whether they are linked to criminal charges.
The bill must still be passed by the House and signed by the governor to become law.
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