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Senator proposes more tracking for asset forfeiture cases

Police in Maryland have broad powers to take money, cars and houses they suspect of being linked to crimes, but a Republican state senator wants them to keep better track of assets they seize.

Sen. Christopher B. Shank, who represents parts of Washington County in Western Maryland, has proposed a bill that would require police to report the types of property seized, the crimes with which they are believed to be linked, and what happened in any related criminal case.

Under current law, police may seize assets they believe were either bought with the proceeds of a crime or used to commit one, whether or not a person is criminally charged. If a prosecutor can prove the connection to criminal activity in court, or if nobody comes forward to claim the assets, they are turned over to authorities permanently.

Shank said his bill was particularly important because assets can be taken using civil actions in which the burden of proof is lower than in a criminal case. He pointed to reporting by The Baltimore Sun, which found that in 2012, about half the people who had assets taken in federal court were not convicted of a crime.

"From a private-property standpoint and from a perspective of a liberty-loving legislative position, I find that somewhat troubling," Shank said at a committee hearing on his bill last week.

Shank's bill is supported by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Institute for Justice, a nonprofit libertarian law firm that has researched forfeiture practices across the country.

The Sun tracked the forfeiture cases using advanced searches of the federal court records system. But Toni Holness, an ACLU representative, said the reporting requirement in Shank's legislation would provide for better oversight of the system, which allows some of the seized assets to be plowed back into police budgets.

"This area of civil forfeiture really is rife with potential conflicts of interest, so a reporting requirement does seem to make sense," she said.

Money raised through forfeitures under Maryland law is paid into the general funds of the respective police departments' jurisdictions. But federal law allows for police to recover some of the money directly. In fiscal 2012, those payouts totaled $6 million; they dropped to $2.8 million the following year.

Thomas Williams, a lobbyist for the Maryland State Police, testified that he opposes the bill because it would cost law enforcement time and money, and tracking seizures by multi-agency task forces would be difficult.

iduncan@baltsun.com

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Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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