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Montana politics, elections and legislative news

Bill Would Force Police To Prove Confiscated Assets Were Used For Crime

Rep. Kelly McCarthy.
Montana Legislature

Today at the Montana Capitol, legislators joined the national conversation about civil asset forfeiture, or, put simply, police taking money and property before they charge someone. The bill’s sponsor, Democratic Representative Kelly McCarthy, is teaming up with Republican Representative Daniel Zolnikov to promote House Bill 463, which he says would force police to prove that the assets they confiscate were used in a crime.

Montana law now states officers may seize property or cash if it falls under suspicion, without a warrant, and then it’s up to the owner to prove their property isn’t part of a crime.

This issue started catching national attention when the Washington Post dug into the issue last year, reporting that at least $2.5 billion were seized without warrants between 2001 and 2014.

During the hearing, Representative Zolnikov said police told him they were starting to depend on money from seizing property, making the act more attractive.

“They’re starting to rely on these funds. That’s scary. And they’ve said that to my face. I will not say who, but … there is a precedent being set. This is a very big concern.”

Travis Welsh of the Missoula Police Department says his department does not carry statistics specific to asset forfeiture. Other departments didn’t respond before this story's deadline.

There have been no conclusive studies in Montana to tell how much asset forfeiture is going on in the state, but McCarthy says there will be upcoming resolutions to research this in the interim.

The bill’s opponents, including the Attorney General’s office, say it could aid drug traffickers. Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher says his area is part of the Missouri River Drug Task Force, and some suspects can’t be charged in state, leaving police no way to confiscate items used for trafficking.

“This law says that you can’t forfeit something unless the person is convicted. What is occurring in Montana is that those people may be convicted in federal court and not see a state judge, or they may just take off.”

McCarthy says the bill deals more with what the police can keep, and doesn’t prohibit confiscation.

“We’re not stopping the seizure side of this. If they see drugs, tools of the trade on the street, please take them off the street. And when you’re dealing with felons, please seize their stuff and convict them.”

No immediate action was taken on this bill.

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