At their annual fall conclave, held this week in Coral Gables, Florida, legislators from the 16 southern states in the Southern Legislative Conference of The Council of State Governments have asset forfeiture reform on their agenda.
Sandwiched in among such hot legislative topics as "The Importance of Trucking in the US and SLC State Economies," "Supply and Demand: The Outlook for Natural Gas," and "Key Medicaid Issues Update: State Financing, SCHIP, and TANF Delinking" is a panel on police seizures of cash and property from criminal suspects.
The Saturday panel titled "To Serve & Collect: Are Local and Federal Policies Circumventing State Drug Asset Forfeiture Laws?" will provide legislators the opportunity to hear from Missouri state Senator Harry Wiggins, who sponsored asset forfeiture reform legislation in his state; Steven Kessler, a New York-based criminal defense attorney forfeiture law expert; and two federal officials. The Justice Department will be represented by Trial Attorney Steven Schlesinger, while Bill Bradley, legal counsel to the Executive Office for Asset Forfeiture will represent Treasury.
Conference regional representative Todd Edwards told DRCNet Wiggins suggested the topic and it was approved by the head of the Intergovernmental Affairs Committee, Delegate Dana Denbrow of Maryland.
Wiggins is a Kansas City Democrat and co-chair of a joint legislative committee tasked with studying asset forfeiture in Missouri. Frustrated by law enforcement end runs around state asset forfeiture rules, he filed a bill in January that would force Missouri police to actually obey the law.
Under Missouri law, the proceeds from asset forfeitures are supposed to go to education. But state and local law enforcement agencies got around the law by handing their booty off to federal agencies such as the DEA, which would keep a fraction and return the rest to the seizing state police agency.
Police officials argued that they didn't technically seize assets; they only held them for federal officials.
While that bill has not yet passed -- Wiggins promised to reintroduce it in February -- his efforts have had an impact. In June, the Kansas City police board caved in to mounting pressure and ordered the department to follow state law.
After the Kansas City department's action, Wiggins sent an open letter to the Missouri Highway Patrol and the St. Louis county and city police departments urging them to follow Kansas City's example, but they have yet to voluntarily comply.
The current conference marks at least the second conference of state legislators ready to hear about asset forfeiture reform. In June, lawmakers from across the country attending the National Conference of State Legislatures convention in Chicago had the chance to hear a similar panel, also including Wiggins and Kessler, discussing ways to prevent police from using federal agencies to get around state laws.
With asset forfeiture reform initiatives having passed in Utah and Oregon this year and limited federal reforms last year, asset forfeiture appears to be solidly on the legislative agenda.
"Clearly, asset forfeiture is something that needs to be revisited by legislators throughout the country," one legislator in Chicago told the Kansas City Star. "It's going to be a big debate. It's going to be a very complicated procedure."