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New Maryland Law – Harder for Police to Unjustly Seize Property

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Civil Asset Forfeiture word cloud on white background

Historically speaking, it was very difficult for the average American to imagine that their property could, in theory, be seized by police officers. Within the United States, there has been a preconceived notion that the state could never take property unfairly. Even though this is normally correct, one has to take into account the different states and their varying constitutions. A viable example of this can be seen in Maryland where previously, police officers were able to seize property with a great deal of ease. That being said, there has been a recent law that has greatly changed these prior property seizure practices in Maryland. To see how this new law could greatly benefit your property interests in Maryland, continue reading below.


What Exactly Has Changed in Maryland’s Property Seizure Laws?

Given that this change in law is so recent, there is still only a small amount of information on the new legal framework. On January 21, 2016, there was a historic vote in Maryland that changed the property seizure law framework that had been instilled into the state’s legal system in the 1980’s. The exact legal provision that was overturned recently was the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Package. What this signifies is that three-fifths majority in both the Maryland House and Senate overturned Governor Larry Hogan’s veto of the Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform Package. This is historic because it overrides the Governor’s authority on having influence over the seizure of property. Now, Maryland residents are protected in the best way that they have been against property seizures since the 1980’s.


The Burden That Has Been Shifted to the Government

Previously in Maryland, it was quite easy for law enforcement to get away with property seizures because they merely had to state that the property was tied to an illegal crime. The individual would have no presumed innocence, only presumed guilt. This is quite important because even if the individual did not have the money to obtain counsel, they would have their property seized regardless if it was a car, a home or their entire life savings.

What makes the new law so sensational is now the burden of proof is tied to the government. The government now has to prove by the preponderance of the evidence that the owner had property that was tied to crime and that they knew that their property was tied to a crime. The addition of a “Mens Rea” element to the new law allows there to be a great reduction in the abuse that previously transpired as a result of greedy law enforcement officers.

An additional component of the new law restricts the government from implementing cash forfeitures to amounts greater than $300 unless it can be proved that the money is tied to the unlawful distribution of drugs.


The Ban of Transferring Assets to Federal Police

One of the primary goals of this new law was to essentially tie the hands of the law enforcement agencies a little more. Thus, there is no surprise that there is actually a portion of the law that bans the transfer of seized property to federal law enforcement agencies. What this is protecting against is the prior practice of state and local agencies transferring seized property to federal authorities for forfeiture in exchange for a portion of the proceeds. Since 2000, Maryland’s law enforcement agencies have profited a sum in excess of $100 million. Historically, this money had been beyond the control of legislators because it was obtained in a manner that skirted the state law pertaining to forfeiture proceedings.


The Laws Possible Exceptions

Given that the new law is quite expansive and aims to change the entire practice of property seizure, there have also been two exceptions added to the law’s expansive provisions. The first exception is that property may be transferred to federal authorities if there is a pending criminal case. Additionally, according to the second exception, the property may be transferred to federal authorities if the owner consents.

The law’s second possible exception is quite concerning because it allows a window for the corrupt practices in Maryland to continue. For example, there were many officers who would threaten to file false charges against individuals in order to collect the property. This practice could be allowed again through this exception.

This is precisely why there has been a new bill proposed that would eliminate the second exception of the law that would potentially allow these “consented property seizures.”


End Results

Even though this law is an enormous step in the right direction for Maryland in regards to property seizures, it is important to remember that Maryland has a long way to go. In the future, if the voluntary property transfers can be eliminated, it will help Maryland a great deal in the long run because it will get Maryland one step closer to a corruption-free system of property seizures. In the coming months, we will likely see a great deal of progress and debate on this new law and it will be fascinating to see how it all unfolds.