North Dakota civil asset forfeiture reform begins Senate path with some common ground

Aaron Birst, of the Association of Counties, suggests proposed amendments, including allowing a city or county commission to oversee a fund for forfeiture proceeds. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune
Aaron Birst, of the Association of Counties, suggests proposed amendments, including allowing a city or county commission to oversee a fund for forfeiture proceeds. Tom Stromme / Bismarck Tribune

Reform of civil asset forfeiture in North Dakota has found some common ground on its Senate path.

After a nearly two-hour hearing on Tuesday, March 26, Sen. Diane Larson, R-Bismarck, who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, said the committee may look at amendments to House Bill 1286 in committee work on Wednesday. Rep. Rick Becker, R-Bismarck, brought the bill, citing a "perverse incentive" of "policing for profit."

The House in February passed the bill 57-33 amid a U.S. Supreme Court ruling on proportionality in states' forfeitures, or not forfeiting property worth more than a crime's monetary penalty.

Civil asset forfeiture in North Dakota applies to property suspected of criminal involvement and doesn't require a conviction or criminal charges.

Most testifiers expressed support Tuesday for the bill's higher burden of proof of clear and convincing evidence, annual reporting to the attorney general's office and a provision for proportionality.

"Those are three things that can make great sense," said North Dakota Attorney General Wayne Stenehjem.

The bill also includes a conviction requirement for forfeiture proceedings.

Law enforcement and prosecutors have opposed a conviction requirement as they say some offenses cannot land convictions or even charges, such as absconded drug dealers whose cash is seized or for interjurisdictional crimes.

"We can't get a conviction if the crimes are in Montana but the car was coming down (Interstate) 94 with the money," said McLean County State's Attorney Ladd Erickson.

But the bill does include a stipulation to forfeit property in cases of death, disappearance, deportation or abandoned property, as well as a provision for multi-jurisdictional prosecution.

Becker told Larson's committee that his bill relies on three elements: reporting of seizures and forfeitures, a conviction requirement and a neutral disposition of proceeds from forfeitures.

Aaron Birst, representing the North Dakota Association of Counties, outlined some proposed amendments in his testimony. Those include adding an exception for evidence beyond a reasonable doubt to forfeit criminal property without a conviction, as well as allowing a city or county commission to oversee a fund for forfeiture proceeds.

"We don't agree with the bill that's currently in front of you, but we are awfully close," Birst said.

Rep. Terry Jones, R-New Town, who led a House judiciary subcommittee on the bill, also indicated he would have amendments for committee work.

"I really haven't gotten a feel for what my committee is going to consider yet," Larson said after Tuesday's hearing.