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Tatum O’Brien
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Civil Asset Forfeiture in North Dakota


Can law enforcement take your personal property, sell it, and keep the proceeds? Under current North Dakota law, if law enforcement believes the property was used in a crime, this is legal. Regardless of whether a person is convicted of the crime alleged, police can seize the property. When law enforcement later sells the property, that agency keeps the proceeds from the sale. Police need only probable cause to forfeit property. Further, even if the owner does not know the property is used for illegal activity, the owner must prove his innocence to recover the property. For example, if someone is charged with robbing a bank and used his mother’s car to get away from the scene, law enforcement can seize his mother’s car. Even if the alleged bank robber is never convicted, law enforcement can keep the vehicle, sell it, and keep the money from the sale. Because it is civil forfeiture, as opposed to criminal forfeiture, many of the constitutional protections afforded to criminal defendants do not apply.
Recently, the North Dakota Legislature considered changing the forfeiture process through HB 1170. The bill recently passed in the North Dakota State House 50-42. HB 1170 would prevent the forfeiture of property unless the owner was convicted of a crime. Further, the bill would prevent law enforcement from receiving the proceeds. Instead, any sale of forfeited civil assets would go to the state’s general fund. The new bill also creates exceptions to assets that can be forfeited. These assets include “homesteaded real property, a motor vehicle of less than ten thousand dollars in market value, and United States currency totaling two hundred dollars or less.” By exempting these items, the legislature is probably ensuring no one becomes homeless or without transportation because of civil forfeiture rules. By changing the civil asset forfeiture laws, the legislature is seeking to safeguard due process for property owners and prevent improper use of forfeiture by law enforcement.
Essentially, property involved in crimes will be seized in the same way, but the change happens in the forfeiture process in the courts. Police could still seize the property, but an alleged criminal would not forfeit the property until a conviction. Depending on what the North Dakota Legislature decides, civil forfeiture laws could change significantly to benefit property owners throughout the state.

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