Monroe County has created a fund to facilitate the seizure of property through a controversial process called civil asset forfeiture. On Friday, the County Commissioners approved the creation of a new civil forfeiture fund at the request of the County Prosecutor’s office. There is widespread disagreement about the legality of and justification for civil asset forfeiture, which allows government agencies to seize property they suspect was involved in a crime.
In Indiana, there is no requirement that a person be convicted of a crime before the government seizes their property. Agencies can seize cash, vehicles, homes, land and other property.
On Friday, Monroe County Deputy Prosecutor Beth Hamlin said there is a need for the new fund: “The fund or account is necessary so that we can deposit the forfeiture funds and then distribute the forfeiture funds. Forfeited funds are distributed to law enforcement; we, as the prosecutor’s office, do not retain any financial interest in that. It covers the cost of the investigation.”
Law enforcement agencies around the country have increased the use of asset forfeiture laws since the beginning of the War on Drugs in the 1980s. Proponents argue the practice discourages criminal activity. Hamlin said the federal government used to handle civil forfeiture on behalf of County prosecutors, but they stopped about a year ago.
She said many other counties across the state have created civil forfeiture funds: “It’s a ‘best practice’ across the state. There are a lot of other counties across that use such a fund in a contracted situation. It’s a ‘best practice’ to separate the forfeiture from the criminal prosecutions so that we can avoid even an appearance of inpropreity in the prosecution of a case. The plan is a model that’s used throughout the state. Our office retains decision-making authority as to which cases will be appropriate to refer for forfeiture actions. The contracted counsel is paid through the proceeds of the forfeiture actions.”
Critics of civil forfeiture laws have said they incentivize police to accuse citizens of illegal behavior and to seize their property, because the proceeds are traditionally used to help fund police. In Monroe County, the proceeds would be used by law enforcement, though only to pay the costs of an investigation.
Hamlin says state law requires the remainder be put in the state’s common schools fund: “For us to go after these funds might indicate that we are just interested in getting the money and that is the reason we are interested in prosecuting the case. So that is why we are trying to contract this out to private counsel, and the private counsel is paid through the forfeited assets so that we are hands off and there is no inpropreity.”
Critics of civil asset forfeiture, including the American Civil Liberties Union, have pointed out the laws disproportionately affect low-income and minority populations around the country. In California, the ACLU reported last year that 85 percent of seized assets came from communities where a majority of the residents were people of color. Forfeiture cases play out in civil court, where defendants don’t have the right to appointed attorneys and the government’s burden of proof is lower than in criminal trials. Several Indiana state legislators sponsored legislation this year to reform the state’s civil forfeiture procedures. But prosecutors have pushed back and so far none of the bills have made it through the House and Senate. The County Commissioners voted unanimously to approve the creation of Monroe County’s new civil asset forfeiture fund.