Senate committee kills police asset forfeiture bill
By Patrick Wilson
A Senate committee on Tuesday killed a bill that would prevent police from seizing assets in a criminal case unless a defendant were convicted or entered a plea agreement.
The measure (HB1287) passed the House of Delegates 92-6 earlier this month and passed the Senate Courts of Justice Committee 11-2 last week.
However, the Senate Finance Committee killed it Tuesday, and Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment, R-James City County, said it would be studied by the State Crime Commission.
"I'm very disappointed," said the bill's sponsor, Del. Mark Cole, R-Spotsylvania, outside the hearing room. "I think that was just an excuse to kill the bill."
Police are allowed to keep property seized from suspects in drug investigations, sometimes even if a conviction is never obtained. From 2008 to 2013, Virginia law enforcement agencies seized more than $57 million through the state civil asset forfeiture process.
Some offenses that have been added to the law recently, such as human trafficking, require a conviction in order for police to seize property, Cole said.
His bill would make the law uniform by requiring a conviction for asset forfeiture in all criminal investigations. Defendants also would have a chance to exhaust appeals before their assets were seized.
"I think it's just fundamentally wrong for the government to be able to take someone's property who has not been convicted of a crime," Cole told the committee.
"Can you give us an example? I think I understand what you're saying," said committee chairman Sen. Walter Stosch, R-Henrico County.
"Somebody could be accused of dealing drugs," Cole said. "Not even charged. But a civil proceeding could be brought against their assets without them having been convicted, and their assets could be taken."
Stosch and Norment voted to kill the bill, as did Sens. Kenny Alexander, D-Norfolk; Frank Wagner, R-Virginia Beach; Chuck Colgan, D-Prince William County; Janet Howell, D-Fairfax County; Dick Saslaw, D-Fairfax County; John Watkins, R-Powhatan County; and Bill Carrico, R-Grayson County.
Voting for the bill were Sens. Emmett Hanger, R-Augusta County; Steve Newman, R-Lynchburg; Ryan McDougle, R-Hanover County; Jill Holtzman Vogel, R-Fauquier County; and Frank Ruff, R-Mecklenburg County.
Police and prosecutors opposed the bill, while several conservative and liberal groups backed it. A letter in support of the bill on Monday was signed by Claire Guthrie Gastanaga of the Virginia American Civil Liberties Union, Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform and two officials with the Institute for Justice, a civil liberties law firm.