Reform Md.'s civil forfeiture laws

Harford County State's Attorney Joseph Cassilly was talking smack in his recent op-ed regarding Senate Bill 528, which represents a modest reform of Maryland's civil forfeiture laws ("Why are Md. lawmakers itching to fund drug dealers?" Jan. 3).

Contrary to Mr. Cassilly's risible claim that lawmakers were "itching to fund drug dealers," SB 528 was designed to protect Marylanders from predatory policing (though, unfortunately, the measure was vetoed by Gov. Larry Hogan last year).

Under civil forfeiture, Marylanders do not have to be criminally charged, much less convicted, in order to lose their cash, cars and even their homes. While Mr. Cassilly argues these seizures affect drug dealers even if prosecutors can't win a criminal conviction, how can the government know if someone is actually guilty if a court doesn't convict him or her? As any prosecutor should know, people are presumed to be innocent until proven guilty.

Mr. Cassilly also omits key facts about SB 528's attempt at closing an obscure but disconcerting loophole. According to a recent report by the Institute for Justice, Maryland is just one of seven states that ban police and prosecutors from keeping forfeiture proceeds for themselves. But a federal program called "equitable sharing" allows local and state law enforcement to seize property under state law and then refer the seizure to federal authorities for litigation in federal court.

Since 2008, Maryland agencies have spent more than $35 million in equitable-sharing funds. Yet only $142,000 of these federal funds — less than 1 percent — actually went to community programs like drug treatment and awareness initiative that Mr. Cassilly described. In Baltimore alone, police spent more than $3 million on travel, training, salaries and overtime — a third of the money they received through equitable sharing.

As the session reconvenes, lawmakers would be wise to overturn Mr. Hogan's veto and pass even more sweeping reforms. Marylanders deserve to have their property rights respected.

Nick Sibilla, Arlington, Va.

The writer is a communications associate at the Institute for Justice.

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