May 12, 2021:- A few years ago, by way of an outside section to the budget, the Massachusetts Legislature established a Civil Forfeiture Commission to “study civil asset forfeiture policies and practices in the commonwealth… [and] submit a report of its study and any recommendations, together with any draft legislation necessary to carry those recommendations into effect.”
Before reading any further, it may be helpful to know these key facts about civil asset forfeiture in Massachusetts:
- In the period 2017-19 the Commonwealth, through civil asset forfeiture actions under section 47(d) of chapter 94C of the General Laws by the attorney general and district attorneys, seized assets from people who had not been accused of, let alone convicted of, any crime, including more than $20 million in money;
- In 24% of cases the amount of money seized was between $2,000 and $4,999, in 25% the amount was less than $2,000, and in one case was $6.20;
- The statute puts the burden on a claimant to prove that the property is not forfeitable; and
- In most cases the legal fees that an innocent owner would incur in making a claim would exceed the value of the seized property.
Click here for my previous post on the subject.
On March 30, 2021, the Commission reconvened after a lengthy COVID-19 State of Emergency-related hiatus. Here is a link to the video of the meeting.
When listening to the chair, Majority Leader Representative Claire Cronin, you will notice that she reminds the members of the need to confine their work to the charge that the Legislature gave them. When Senator Jamie Eldridge, Senate chair of the Joint Committee on the Judiciary, suggests (at around minute 50) asking presenters to include stories from people directly affected by civil asset forfeiture, Representative Cronin says that it “may be beyond the scope of the charge.”
This is odd.
If you read the charge (follow the link above in the words “outside section”) you will see that one of the commission’s express tasks is to conduct “an analysis of any racial or socioeconomic disparities in the application of civil asset forfeiture laws in the commonwealth.” Analysis means something more than merely presenting the figures. Hearing the voices of ordinary people with first-hand experience of the practice could be very helpful in analyzing the racial and socioeconomic disparities.
In addition, the charge begins with the customary tautologous phrase, “the study shall include, but not be limited to.”*
The commission’s remit is quite broad, certainly broad enough to listen to residents who have committed no crime but have had their property seized by the government. I hope that Senator Eldridge and other members of the commission will persevere and invite voices from outside the political class to help the commission really analyze the disparate impacts of civil asset forfeiture.
Next the commission is going to look at the annual reports that District Attorneys file with the Legislature about how they spend the fruits of their seizures; seek data from the State Police about the number of forfeitures connected to cases that result in prosecutions; and ask Attorney General Maura Healy how long her office holds on to seized assets.
* I call it tautologous because the word “include” means to be part of a thing, as opposed to being the whole thing. Adding “not limited to” is redundant, in my opinion. Students of legislative drafting, please note: Nobody cares about my opinion.