BOSTON — The state Senate has overhauled a controversial state law that allows police to seize money or property, but stripped the measure of a provision that would have swept confiscated proceeds into a special trust fund.
The law, known as civil asset forfeiture, allows police and prosecutors to take money, homes, cars, boats and other personal possessions belonging to suspects in drug investigations. The state has one of the lowest legal bars in the country to take someone’s property as part of a forfeiture case.
Legislation approved by the Senate on Thursday would prevent law enforcement from seizing anything worth more than $250, allow criminal defendants to have legal representation in forfeiture cases, raise the legal standard for forfeiture and require more disclosure and reporting on how law enforcement seizes and spends the funds.
The measure passed by a vote on 31-9 with the Senate’s Republican minority and a handful of Democrats voting against it.
Supporters of the changes say Massachusetts has become an outlier on forfeiture laws by giving law enforcement broad latitude to take peoples property — in some cases even if they haven’t been charged with a crime.
“Those affected are disproportionately people on the margins, who will not easily recover from losing access to a family car, money for groceries or even in some cases their primary residence,” Mon. Cynthia Creem, D-Newton, the bill’s primary sponsor, said in remarks
“In a state where the cost of living continues to go up, we cannot be indifferent to a practice that allows government actors to seize money and property indefinitely without adequate due process or compensation,” she added.
Law enforcement groups pushed back against a provision that would have swept money from forfeiture cases into a special fund controlled by the state treasurer, and senators dropped that section from a final version of the bill.
An amendment sponsored by several Democratic lawmakers keeps control of the pot of money from seizures under police agencies and state prosecutors.
But lawmakers tacked on new provisions to the proposal improving transparency in how the money is sought and requiring the money to be spent on specific purposes, such as investigations and jail diversion programs.
Senate Minority Leader Bruce Tarr, R-Gloucester, who voted against the bill, had twice used a parliamentary maneuver to delay consideration of the bill. He also sought unsuccessfully to amend it to provide more due process for suspects in foreclosure cases and other changes that were rejected by the Democratic majority.
Civil liberties groups and others have been pushing for years on Beacon Hill to reform the forfeiture law. They have been encouraged by recent progress on the issue, with legal challenges pending in state courts and support for pending bills before the Legislature.
Carol Rose, executive director of the ACLU of Massachusetts, said the law is “ripe for reform” and the Senate plan is a “solid foundation” for improving accountability and transparency.
“For decades, law enforcement has used civil asset forfeiture as a way to increase their budgets with little or no oversight and accountability,” she said in a statement. “This process has harmed people and families, particularly communities of color who are already over-policed.”
Under the current proposal, money collected in the trust fund would be spent on jail diversion programs, training for prosecutors and law enforcement officers, and to support violence prevention and substance abuse programs, among other uses.
“This money is essential for funding a lot of the more complex investigations,” said Mark Leahy, executive director of the Massachusetts Chiefs of Police Association. “Oftentimes, law enforcement needs access to these funds quickly, and our concern is that if they put that money in a separate fund the process of accessing the funds would become very cumbersome and time-consuming.”
Leahy said law enforcement agencies are open to more transparency in the forfeiture process, but they strongly oppose efforts to take away control of the funds.
“These funds have been crucial to police departments, especially those that participate in federal investigations,” he said. “They need access to that money in a timely manner.”
Many states have eased their civil forfeiture laws, but in Massachusetts, prosecutors are able to keep secret assets using one of the lowest legal bars in the nation.
Massachusetts police hidden cash and property valued at more than $327 million from 2000 to 2019, including $24 million in federal seizures that were returned to the state, according to the Institute for Justice, a legal advocacy group.
The forfeiture law has also consistently earned Massachusetts — which is known as the “cradle of liberty” — low grades for personal and economic freedoms.
The bill now moves to the House of Representatives, which must approve the measure before sending it to Gov. Charlie Baker’s desk for consideration.
Christian M. Wade covers the Massachusetts Statehouse for North of Boston Media Group’s newspapers and websites. Email him at [email protected].
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