Good news for Nebraska residents worried about state and local police taking their stuff without convicting them of a crime: They can't do it anymore.
This week Nebraska's Republican governor, Pete Ricketts, signed into law a bill that all but abolishes the practice of civil asset forfeiture in that state.
Civil asset forfeiture allows authorities to seize cash and property from people they suspect of a crime. In most states, and under federal law, authorities may get to keep the proceeds regardless of whether the person is ever convicted, or even charged, with a crime.
But that's no longer the case in Nebraska. Now, authorities must obtain a criminal conviction before they can seize a person's belongings. Nebraska is now just the 10th state to require this level of protection for property owners. In 40 other states plus the District of Columbia, police can still take and keep an individual's property without a criminal conviction -- and in many cases, without even charging someone with a crime.
In six states -- Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico and Vermont -- changes to require conviction before forfeiture were passed just in the past two years, a sign of growing public unease with the practice.
Advocates are hailing Nebraska's measure as a major victory. "Civil forfeiture is one of the most serious assaults on due process and private property rights in America today," said Lee McGrath, managing attorney of the Institute for Justice, a civil liberties law firm that represents forfeiture defendants. The decision to abolish forfeiture "will ensure that only convicted criminals — and not innocent Nebraskans — lose their property to forfeiture."
One major reason the practice may still persist is that most Americans don't know that it's happening. According to a 2015 Huffington Post/YouGov poll, three-quarters of Americans hadn't even heard of the term "civil asset forfeiture." So pollsters then asked a specific question: “To the best of your knowledge, when can law enforcement permanently seize money or other property from a person?”
Forty percent of respondents thought property could only be seized after a conviction, and 12 percent said that police could seize property after charging someone with a crime. Another 18 percent simply had no idea. Less than a third of Americans knew that police could seize and permanently keep a person's belongings without ever charging them with wrongdoing.
In Nebraska, reformers took their case to the public by highlighting particularly egregious cases of forfeiture abuse. In 2013, Nebraska sheriff's deputies took over $14,000 in church donations from a pastor at a traffic stop, according to the ACLU of Nebraska. That money was later returned. In 2011, Nebraska cops seized over $60,000 from an Air Force veteran after saying they smelled marijuana in his car. No drugs were found and no charges were filed, but the veteran's money was never returned.
Even law enforcement officials, who are typically the staunchest opponents of changing forfeiture laws, offered some grudging support for Nebraska's law. The Nebraska Attorney General's office told the Lincoln Journal-Star it was "a positive step forward." Police in Lincoln said that the law would "create additional work" but that they would comply with it.
Nebraska's measure means that now over 73 million Americans -- nearly 23 percent of the U.S. population -- live in a state where police can't take their cash without convicting them of a crime. But for everyone else, a bad experience with civil asset forfeiture may be just a traffic stop away.