JUNEAU — It didn’t take long for the House Judiciary Committee to fall in love with a bill to protect Alaskans from having their assets seized and kept by police.
House Bill 317 by North Pole Rep. Tammie Wilson would clean up and simplify Alaska’s civil forfeiture laws amidst growing national attention to the police practice of seizing and keeping property suspected of being involved in a crime.
“Under House Bill 317, convicted criminals will still see the fruits of their crimes confiscated by the state but innocent Alaskans can rest easy knowing they will no longer be pried of property without due process,” Wilson told the committee.
Wilson and Anchorage attorney Kevin Fitzgerald, who was invited to testify on the bill, said the state’s laws have a low bar allowing for police to seize property if the property is simply suspected of being involved in a crime.
A portion of those proceeds can flow directly into the coffers of the agency that takes the property. National attention has grown over recent years of what the Institute for Justice calls “policing for profit.”
The nonprofit libertarian public interest law firm ranked Alaska’s civil forfeiture laws a D+, criticizing the state for having a low burden of proof as well as leaving the owners of the property with the burden of proof to reclaim their property.
House Bill 317 would require a criminal conviction for police to keep assets, collect the laws into one place to make it easier to navigate, require transparent accounting of what is seized and where it ends up, and a requirement that any revenue goes to the state’s general fund and not the pockets of the law enforcement agency.
“It would require an individual be convicted of an actual crime before forfeiture proceedings can take place,” she said. “And that’s the important part: convicted. You are not guilty until someone proves so.”
The committee, particularly Chair Gabrielle LeDoux, R-Anchorage, were aghast about the potential for a person’s assets to be seized and kept without a finding of guilt.
“If it’s a criminal matter, then how come you don’t have to have proof beyond a reasonable doubt? Just like if you’re going to imprison a person,” she said.
John Skidmore, the director of the criminal division of the Alaska Department of Law, testified on the bill.
He said from his perspective, there are very few cases where civil forfeiture is justified and that existing criminal evidence rules are largely sufficient.
He said the state would be open to reworking the laws with Wilson, but said being able to combine the civil forfeiture process into the legal process would save the need to hire additional attorneys.
The committee is set to take public testimony on the bill at 1 p.m. Thursday, and is poised to move quickly on it.
At the end of the committee hearing, LeDoux called on Skidmore to get any issues he has with the bill hashed out and hashed out quickly.
“Most if not all of us think there is a very real problem here and we want to do something about it,” she said.
Public testimony can be delivered at any legislative information office and will be limited to three minutes per person. Locations and contact information for every office is available online at akleg.gov.
The Fairbanks Legislative Information Office is located at 1292 Sadler Way, Suite 308, on the third floor of the Alaska USA building. Its number is 452-4448.
Contact staff writer Matt Buxton at 459-7544. Follow him on Twitter: @FDNMpolitics.