Sunday 19th May 2019

Gov. Rauner signs changes to Illinois’ asset forfeiture law

Gov. Rauner signs changes to Illinois’ asset forfeiture law

FILE - Gov. Bruce Rauner 9-19-2017
Gov. Bruce Rauner speaks at a bill signing on September 19, 2017, surrounded by supporters of the new law.

Image courtesy of Gov. Bruce Rauner’s office


Gov. Bruce Rauner signed changes to an Illinois law that allows police to take your belongings if you’re accused of a crime.

Alongside the American Civil Liberties Union of Illinois and a group of bipartisan lawmakers, advocacy groups and law enforcement members, Rauner said the measure changing the state’s asset forfeiture law restores the principle of innocent until proven guilty and protects against unreasonable seizure.

Illinois State Police Director Leo Schmitz said asset forfeiture has been a good tool for law enforcement to combat crime in the past, although he supports this reform.

“This bill not only reinforces that ability,” Schmitz said, “but also sets forth appropriate guidelines in order to protect innocent owners, enhance transparency and prevent abuse.”

Investigations by the ACLU found Illinois law enforcement seized nearly $320 million over a 10-year period, but that figure is likely much higher because forfeiture reporting requirements have been lax. The updated law improves the reporting requirements.

ACLU of Illinois staff attorney Ben Ruddell welcomes the new changes so “that those bad apples … in law enforcement who might be tempted to abuse these laws will have a harder time doing so and that claimants will have a fairer shake in every case whether there’a abuse or not.”

Ruddell said the law is a good step forward to help those who find themselves caught in the middle.

“So the grandmothers and the mothers and father,” Ruddell said, “who so often wind up in court to try and get their car back when it’s not even them, it’s their son, their grandson, their boyfriend, whatever other person is alleged that have committed a crime.”

However, “there are important reforms that are not part of this bill,” Ruddell said.

One issue is how proceeds from seized property would be divvied up. Ruddell said they wanted all efforts meant to reduce crime to have access to a common fund, rather than funds being controlled solely by law enforcement.

“[That] would create what we view as a more equitable scheme,” Ruddell said, “where law enforcement isn’t the sole beneficiary of these dollars and where the incentive structure isn’t such that law enforcement agencies have perverse, twisted incentives to seize as much as they can. That still remains part of the law.”

The legislation the governor signed Tuesday does require a preponderance of evidence to seize assets that were used in commission of a crime, instead of just probable cause. Ruddell said that matches federal law and is equivalent to the normal standard of proof in civil lawsuits, but the ACLU wanted clear and convincing evidence, which is just below a reasonable doubt.

As for when the property could be permanently seized, the ACLU wanted a conviction requirement.

“We think requiring a conviction gives us certainty,” Ruddell said, “that when we’re permanently depriving somebody of valuable property on the theory that property was involved in a crime, that there was in fact a crime. This legislation unfortunately doesn’t do that.”

A previous version of this story mischaracterized the standard of proof the ACLU sought for civil asset forfeiture.

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