By Bob Katzen
The Senate 31-9, approved and sent to the House a bill that would make changes to the current civil asset forfeiture law that allows law enforcement and prosecutors to seize property which is alleged to have been involved in a crime. Under current law, the burden of proof is on the owner of the items who believes that their possessions were improperly forfeited. That person is required to demonstrate that these items were not involved in a crime.
The bill puts the burden of proof on law enforcement and prosecutors who would be required to prove, by a preponderance of the evidence, that property seized is in fact subject to civil asset forfeiture under Massachusetts law. Forfeiture hearings would also include accused individuals’ legal counsel and the bill also limits the value of items taken in civil asset forfeiture to $250 or less.
“Massachusetts civil asset forfeiture laws are ranked among the worst in the nation,” said sponsor Sen. Becca Rausch (D-Needham). “The Senate took steps to change that … Through collaboration with law enforcement, social justice advocates and legislative partners, I believe the final bill strikes a good balance between supporting the good work done by our public safety personnel and enhancing the forfeiture process to better protect Bay Staters from any unjust confiscation.”
“In my capacity as Senate Chair of the Committee on the Judiciary, I served as co-Chair of the Special Commission on Asset Forfeiture,” said Sen. Jamie Eldridge (D-Acton). “That special commission produced a powerful report calling for change to the commonwealth’s outdated approach to asset forfeiture. Massachusetts has one of the most unfair civil asset forfeiture laws in the country, with little due process – and has taken a bold step forward to reform that. For those facing criminal prosecution or those who are innocent co-owners of property that may have been tangentially related to crime, this bill represents transformational change for the good.”
Opponents said the bill goes too far and offered several unsuccessful amendments including one that would strike the right to free counsel and replace it with a commission to study whether counsel should be offered at no cost to indigents.
Sen. Bruce Tarr (R-Gloucester), the chief opponent of the measure, did not respond to several requests by Beacon Hill Roll Call to comment on why he opposed the bill.
(A “Yes” vote is for the bill. A “No” vote is against it).
Sen. Patricia Jehlen Yes