Ohio’s Governor Signs New Conviction Requirement for Civil Forfeiture

Today, Gov. John Kasich signed HB 347, an important overhaul of the state’s civil forfeiture laws. Under current law, Ohioans do not have to be convicted, much less charged with a crime, for the government to take their property through civil forfeiture.

“Civil forfeiture is one of the most serious assaults on due process and private property rights in the United States today,” said Institute for Justice Legislative Counsel Lee McGrath. “Ohio’s new law should protect many from this abuse of power.”

Absent reform, forfeiture has been a windfall for law enforcement. A recent report by the Institute for Justice found that between 2010 and 2012, Ohio law enforcement collected at least $25.7 million in forfeiture revenue.

To better protect innocent property owners, HB 347 will:

  • Generally require a criminal conviction (or its equivalent) as a prerequisite to forfeit property at under $15,000. That threshold would be prospectively adjusted for inflation.
  • Raise the standard of proof to clear and convincing evidence for state civil forfeiture proceedings.
  • Shift the burden of proof from innocent owners onto the government.
  • Ban transferring seized property valued at under $100,000 to a federal agency, which would close the “equitable-sharing” loophole.

Through equitable sharing, state and local agencies that collaborate with the federal government can collect up to 80 percent of a forfeited property’s proceeds, even if doing so would circumvent state law. Using this loophole, Ohio police and prosecutors received nearly $140 million from the U.S. Department of Justice from 2000 to 2013. Yet in recent years, half of all equitable-sharing forfeitures in Ohio were under $8,500, IJ data analysis found.

In December, HB 347 passed the Senate unanimously and the House by a wide margin, 81 to 10. HB 347 has earned the support of a broad, bipartisan coalition including the ACLU, the Buckeye Institute, FreedomWorks, the Institute for Justice, and U.S. Justice Action Network.

“In 2016, we saw substantial improvements in California, Florida, Nebraska and New Hampshire, while the party platforms for both the Democrats and Republicans endorsed forfeiture reform,” McGrath added. “Let’s hope even more states join this growing movement in the year ahead.”

In the past two years alone, 18 other states have overhauled their forfeiture laws. Along with Ohio, 11 other states require convictions for most or all forfeiture cases. Similar to HB 347, four states and the District of Columbia have also taken action to close the equitable-sharing loophole.