House to consider asset forfeiture bill

Virginia could change how and when law enforcement agencies receive money from assets seized during criminal investigations.

A House of Delegates committee this week endorsed legislation that would require a court to find a defendant guilty of a crime before he or she could lose assets taken in the course of an investigation. Critics of the federal asset forfeiture program claim the seizure of a defendant’s money and other items without a guilty verdict violates the owner’s property rights.

The Courts of Justice Committee voted 12-6 on Monday in favor of reporting the bill to the full House. Area Delegates C. Todd Gilbert, R-Woodstock, and Christopher Collins, R-Winchester, voted with the majority. The House heard the legislation on first reading Wednesday.

Gilbert said in an email Wednesday that almost all of his professional experience with asset forfeiture came during his career as a prosecutor. Gilbert voiced support for the bill.

“This bill will essentially require a conviction before assets which represent the fruits of criminal activity can be forfeited to the state,” Gilbert states in the email. “I believe requiring a conviction before such action is taken is consistent with our system of justice.”

The bill, if made into law, would require that any action for the forfeiture of property used in connection with the commission of a crime be stayed or delayed until the person whose property is the subject of forfeiture action has been found guilty of the crime authorizing the forfeiture regardless of if he or she has been sentenced.

The legislation does allow forfeiture of the property without a finding a guilt if:

• The owner is a fugitive from justice

• There is no identifiable owner of the property

• The property has been abandoned

• The owner has denied ownership of the property during the prosecution of the offense

• The owner agrees to the forfeiture

• The court orders the forfeiture as required in a plea agreement

• The owner has not submitted a written demand for the return of the property within 21 days from the date the state terminates.

The bill also provides that all proceeds from the sale of forfeited property used in connection with crimes involving the manufacture, sale or distribution of controlled substances or marijuana be deposited into the Drug Offender Assessment and Treatment Fund appropriated by the General Assembly for related activities conducted by the Department of Corrections, the Department of Juvenile Justice, the Department of Criminal Justice Services, the Commission on the Virginia Alcohol Safety Action Program and the Office of the Executive Secretary of the Supreme Court of Virginia.

Forfeited property goes into a Department of Criminal Justice Services fund and is used to promote state and local law enforcement activities.

The bill also provides that all forfeited cash, negotiable instruments, and proceeds from the sale of forfeited property seized by a federal agency and received by any state or local agency pursuant to federal law be deposited into the Drug Offender Assessment and Treatment Fund. The bill also requires the comptroller to report annually to the governor and the General Assembly on the amount of property forfeited to the commonwealth and to establish and maintain a publicly available, searchable electronic database containing information regarding all property seized and forfeited.