WINTER HARBOR — A bill sponsored by state Rep. Billy Bob Faulkingham (R-Winter Harbor) has become law, effectively abolishing the practice of civil asset forfeiture, making Maine the fourth state in the country to do so.
Civil asset forfeiture is a practice where a law enforcement agency can confiscate a person’s property if it suspects that property was used or obtained illegally, without charging or convicting the owners of the property with a crime. Technically, the piece of property, such as cash, firearms, or in some cases, structures, becomes the defendant in a legal proceeding.
Initially, the practice “was used against drug cartels and major gangs, that sort of thing,” Faulkingham told The American. “But what we’ve seen over the years is that it’s increasingly affected poor people and minorities.”
Faulkingham reported that the average value of forfeitures in the state is $1,600, what he calls a “low amount” of money. “And the person who is usually losing the money is usually a poor person,” he said.
In civil asset forfeiture cases, owners of property that has been seized have to prove their innocence to the government to get it returned, Faulkingham said.
“Which is backwards,” he added.
Under the new legislation, property must be forfeited under the state’s criminal forfeiture laws. The property owner must be convicted of a crime in which the property was involved, in order for it to be seized.
In his June 17 testimony for the bill before Maine’s House of Representatives, Faulkingham summed up the legislation by saying, “You don’t lose your property unless it was used in the commission of a crime or knowingly allowed someone else to use it in the commission of a crime.”
He used the example that if a person were to lend a vehicle to a sibling, and that sibling then used the vehicle to make a drug deal, the owner of the vehicle would not lose the vehicle in a seizure by law enforcement without knowingly participating and being convicted of participating in the deal.
“This is something I’ve been working on a while,” Faulkingham said. “A lot of the issues I focus on are civil liberty issues.”
The legislation also dictates that “Following the seizure of property, a defendant or any person with an interest in the property has a right to a prompt post-seizure hearing.”
In his June 17 testimony, Faulkingham noted the bill’s bipartisan support and that it had been co-sponsored by members of three political parties.
It passed in the House 129-11. In the Senate, it passed 33-0.
“It’s really good justice reform that obviously has a lot of bipartisan support, in Maine at least,” Faulkingham said.
Despite the support across the political aisle for the bill, Governor Janet Mills did not sign it.
Faulkingham speculated that the Governor’s background as a prosecutor may have influenced her decision not to sign the bill.
According to the Maine State Legislature website, “If the Governor does not support a bill but does not wish to veto it, it becomes law without the Governor’s signature, if not signed and not returned to the Legislature within 10 days.”
Whether Maine may have set a trend for other states to follow, Faulkingham said, “Honestly, yes,” adding that on a national scale, “I think this might start some dominoes falling.”
“I’d like to see other states follow us,” he said.
Currently, Maine joins only Nebraska, New Mexico and North Carolina in abolishing the civil practice.
“It’s really a big deal. We’re the fourth state in the country to do that,” Faulkingham said, adding he was “really proud we were able to do that here in Maine.”