Rhode Island lawmakers - female and male - experienced first-hand the safety and fun of natural hair braiding at a cultural exhibition yesterday at the State House.

Center Calls on Senate to Act after House Unanimously Passes Hair-Braider Freedom Bill

Will Senate Continue to Block This No-Brainer Legislation?

Second year in-a-row Legislation receives unanimous House vote!

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: June 15, 2018

Providence, RI – For the second straight year, the Senate is on the spot to act on hair-braider freedom legislation passed unanimously by the House. In 2017, they failed. The Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity calls on the Senate to remove the unfair regulations that prevent low-income families from legally earning additional income – or a living – through the practice of the safe craft of natural hair-braiding.

In a 69-0 vote yesterday, H7565 was passed in the House. An identical bill appears again to be stalled in the Senate. The legislation would exempt natural hair-braiders from the onerous cosmetology licensing mandates that demand thousands of hours of unrelated training and tens of thousands of dollars worth of irrelevant classes.

It is unknown why the Senate is blocking such common-sense legislation, especially given that many other states have recently removed similar protectionist and burdensome measures.

Unlike in 2017, however, there is a Senate companion bill this year, S2323, sponsored by Senator Dawn Euer, who is actively working to overcome the inexplicable hold-up in her chamber. In May, many Senators enjoyed a free and fun natural hair-braid outside their chamber on RI Freedom Braiders Lobbying Day.

“We thank the House for recognizing the obvious and we appreciate the work that Senator Euer continues to invest in attempting to move this no-brainer legislation in the Senate,” said Mike Stenhouse, CEO for the Center. “The March Senate Commerce Committee hearing produced no credible opposition to the legislation, but did bring out many current cosmetologists who want to selfishly protect their industry from new competition.”

Civil forfeiture laws represent one of the most serious assaults on cars, cash, and other private property by government today.  According to the Institute for Justice, the Ocean State received a D- for its asset forfeiture laws. Please watch the new asset forfeiture video from the Center now.

Why Rhode Island Needs Civil Asset Forfeiture Reform

“It is absolutely mind-boggling… that people that feed you, in one of the most historical oldest industries in this country, can’t go to sea and land that fish that feeds you without being treated like criminals,” said Richard Fuka, President of RI Fishermen’s Alliance

Civil forfeiture laws represent one of the most serious assaults on cars, cash, and other private property by government today.  According to the Institute for Justice, which produces a state-by-state report card, the Ocean State received a D- for its asset forfeiture laws. Please watch the new asset forfeiture video from the Center now.

Contradicting the testimony of officials from the Attorney General's office on forfeiture reform legislation, a new report shows that over 93% of all cash and property seized by civil asset forfeiture to the government from 2015-2016 were for low dollar amounts.

Asset Forfeiture Reform: State Data Contradicts Opposition from AG and Law Enforcement Agencies

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: May 29, 2018

Asset Seizures in Rhode Island Overwhelmingly Involve Smaller Dollar and Property Values

AG and other law enforcement agencies over-emphasize larger criminal enterprises as basis for their opposition

Providence, RI — Contradicting the testimony of officials from the Attorney General’s office and other state and local law enforcement agencies, a new report from the Stephen Hopkins Center for Civil Rights using the State’s own data, shows that over 93% of all cash and property forfeited to the government from 2015-2016 were for low dollar amounts; not the higher-valued assets typical of ‘major criminal enterprises’, as is the basis of law enforcement’s opposition to proposed civil asset forfeiture reform legislation.

Seeking to lead the way for civil rights and responsible government, the RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity is seeking to advance 2018 legislation that would completely re-write the state’s asset seizure and forfeiture laws. The House bill, H7640, and the Senate bill, S2681, were heard in their respective Judiciary Committees in recent weeks. The legislation is a continuation of last year’s successful package of Justice Reinvestment Initiative reforms, which were passed and signed into state law.

“Today’s report from the Hopkins Center clearly supports our claim and directly refutes law enforcement’s argument,” said Mike Stenhouse. CEO for the Center, which has been long-time defenders of private property rights.

Unlike the “wealthy drug lords” and other “big fish” that were the focus of law enforcement’s opposition testimony, a report published earlier this year by the Center suggested that it may actually be low-income and minority communities – the “little fish” – who suffer disparate impacts from poorly written state forfeiture laws. The report also cited Rhode Island’s D minus grade in a recent Institute for Justice report for its weak civil forfeiture laws as a basis for completely re-writing this section of state law.

One such “little fish” victim in Rhode Island, as fully described in the written testimony by Michael DiLauro, Assistant Public Defender, was Domingo Grullon, who had about $2,000 seized by the government and, despite charges being dropped, was never able to successfully reclaim his cash because of the overly-complex burden placed on innocent property owners by current state law. The reform legislation requires a conviction before the government can maintain permanent possession of seized assets.

The legislation, co-written by the Center and the Hopkins Center, would reform Rhode Island’s asset forfeiture statutes and would:

  • Raise the bar for when government may seize property in the first place
  • Lower the bar by which innocent citizens can reclaim their property
  • Increase transparency so that public officials and citizens can provide appropriate oversight
  • Enhance administration to increase the credibility of law enforcement
  • Increase budget accountability to remove perverse incentives for seizure

The Center’s report, as well as additional related information, can be found on the Center’s website, here.

New brief from the Stephen Hopkins Center for Civil Rights summarizes data regarding asset forfeitures that directly contradicts recent testimony of the office of the Attorney General made in opposition to House Bill 7640 and Senate Bill 2681, An Act Relating To Criminal Procedure – Asset Forfeiture.

Stephen Hopkins Center for Civil Rights: Media Release & Report on Rhode Island Asset Forfeiture

For Immediate Release:
May 29, 2018

Stephen Hopkins Center for Civil Rights Releases Data Brief Responding to Testimony of Office of Attorney General Kilmartin

Report of General Treasurer Showing Average forfeiture of only $1,524.00 Contradicts Rhode Island Attorney General’s Testimony Opposing Asset Forfeiture Reform Legislation

Providence – Giovanni D. Cicione, Esq., Chairman of the Stephen Hopkins Center for Civil Rights, a non-profit legal advocacy group, today released a data brief which has been transmitted to the House and Senate Judiciary Committees. This brief summarizes data regarding asset forfeitures that directly contradicts recent testimony of the office of the Attorney General made in opposition to House Bill 7640 and Senate Bill 2681, An Act Relating To Criminal Procedure – Asset Forfeiture.

Rhode Island’s civil asset forfeiture law has received a grade of “D-“ from the Institute for Justice, who produces a state by state report card on the topic. As the law works today, law enforcement can seize and keep property and cash from individuals even when they haven’t been convicted of any crime. For property to be returned, owners must prove by a preponderance of evidence that their property is not forfeitable, which is a huge burden especially for those without means to pursue such claims. Over the years, a number of states have reformed their forfeiture laws to better protect innocent individuals, while Rhode Island has lagged behind. Legislation is before the General Assembly which aims to change that.

Joe Lindbeck, lobbyist for Rhode Island Attorney General Peter Kilmartin, testified at both the House and Senate Judiciary committee hearings in opposition to legislation which would require a criminal conviction before seized assets may be forfeited. Ms. Lindbeck asserted in both hearings that the proposed reforms would serve only to protect drug cartels and drug kingpins.

The Hopkins Center reviewed data collected by the Rhode Island General Treasurer on forfeiture cases in in 2015 and 2016, which was provided to us and requested under the Rhode Island Access to Public Records Act. The Center then aggregated and analyzed that data in order to assess the realities of how the law is currently being used. The results are clear – the majority of forfeitures were for small dollar amounts, not the type of cash or property “wealthy drug lords” have on hand.

“The data speaks for itself,” noted Chairman Cicione, “but it is worth emphasizing that the median value of all 2016 forfeitures—cash and property—was less than $1,600. Over 85% of cash forfeitures involved $5,000 or less, and only 11 out of 241 cash forfeiture cases involved $10,000 or more, whereas 23 forfeitures were for $500 or less.” “The smallest amount of cash forfeited was $116, and we don’t even know if this person was convicted of any crime before his or her cash was forfeited”, continued Cicione.

“We would ask Attorney General Kilmartin to reconsider his opposition to these reforms given the hard realities of the data and their previously discussed disparate impact on communities of color,” concluded Cicione.
The mission of the Stephen Hopkins Center for Civil Rights is to protect the rights that Americans recognize as fundamental. The Hopkins Center litigates in areas of fiscal responsibility and transparency, school choice, free speech, and property rights to assist individuals the government has harmed, and ensure all Rhode islanders enjoy their constitutional rights.

This week’s “Progressive Land of Make Believe Bad Bills of the Week” are the so-called Fair Employment Practices legislation; House bill 7427 and Senate bill 2475. The legislation that could impose the most extreme employment burdens on Rhode Island businesses than in any other state in the nation.

Progressive Land of Make Believe Bad Bills of the Week: The So-Called Fair Employment Practices Legislation H7427 & S2475.

Once again, legislation is being advanced in the General Assembly based on a progressive-contrived myth; legislation that could impose the most extreme employment burdens on Rhode Island businesses than in any other state in the nation.

This week’s “Progressive Land of Make Believe Bad Bills of the Week” are the so-called Fair Employment Practices legislation; House bill 7427 and Senate bill 2475.

The Rhode Island business community is comprised not just of good business people, but also generous and fair employers. However, in the progressive land of make believe, Ocean State employers regularly practice discriminatory and bigoted compensatory practices against women and other politically-protected groups.

Progressive lawmakers and activists pretend that a multitude of state and federal protections against wage discrimination, enforced by the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), do not already exist.

Currently, Rhode Island law clearly prohibits wage discrimination for “equal work” on “the same operations”. Who can disagree with this? However, the proposed legislation would blur this clear language and change the standard to “comparable work” under “similar working conditions”.

These fuzzy and divisive new regulations would be harmful to businesses, leading to frivolous complaint after frivolous complaint filed by employees against employers. Already with one of the most hostile business climates in America, Rhode Island should not impose more burdens on its valued job-producers.

Without documenting any evidence of systematic discrimination, not covered by existing law, this #Unfair2Employers legislation would set new, highly subjective wage-discrimination standards that are wholly unfair to job-producers. With ridiculous new definitions of acceptable wage determination practices, severe employer penalties will be devised and meted out by unelected government bureaucrats at the Department of Labor and Training.

Supporters of the legislation also pretends this is a “women’s rights” issue, when in fact a whole litany of politically-correct groups, favored by progressive politicians, are included in the new definitions. Existing laws cover these groups as well.

In the real world Rhode Island does not need more job-killing regulation … we simply need more education and better enforcement of existing laws.

 

Seeking to lead the way for civil rights and responsible government, the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity published a new report today ahead of a hearing this afternoon on its legislation that would protect citizens against unjust governmental seizure of their private property.

Asset Forfeiture Reform: New Report, Broad Coalition Expected at Hearing today

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE: May 15, 2018

Asset Forfeiture Reform: Leading the Way for Civil Rights and Responsible Government

Continuation of Successful 2017 Justice Reinvestment Reforms

Providence, RI — Seeking to lead the way for civil rights and responsible government, the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity published a new report today ahead of a hearing this afternoon on its legislation that would protect citizens against unjust governmental seizure of their private property.

The House bill, H7640, will be heard today in Room 101 in the Judiciary Committee. The Senate bill, S2681, was heard last month.

Building off the successful “Justice Reinvestment” reforms that were enacted in by Rhode Island lawmakers in 2017, the state’s asset forfeiture laws should next come under scrutiny, as they can often lead to the unfettered government seizure of cars, cash, and other private property.

“Last year, our Center was proud to join the coalition that saw passage into law of a package of Justice Reinvestment reforms,” commented Mike Stenhouse, CEO for the Center. “This year, this asset forfeiture legislation is a continuation of that bi-partisan initiative.”

The report features research indicating that low-income and minority communities suffer a disparate impacts from poorly written state forfeiture laws. One such victim in Rhode Island, as fully described in the written testimony by Michael DiLauro, Assistant Public Defender, was Domingo Grullon, who had over $2,000 seized by the government and, despite charges being dropped, was never able to successfully reclaim his cash because of the overly-complex burden placed on innocent property owners. The reform legislation requires a conviction before the government can maintain permanent possession of seized assets. In many cases, “hardships are visited upon those who have done nothing wrong in the eyes of the law,” wrote DiLauro.

Long-time defenders of private property rights, the Center cited Rhode Island’s D- grade in a recent Institute for Justice report for its weak civil forfeiture laws as a basis for completely re-writing this section of state law.

At the Senate hearing, as has been the case in the many other state where similar legislation has been passed, a broad and bi-partisan coalition came together in support of the recommended reforms. The RI ACLU, the RI Public Defender’s Office, and Occupy Providence, all center or left leaning organizations, joined with the center-right Center and the Stephen Hopkins Center for Civil Rights. Additionally, the bi-partisan RI Families Coalition supports the reforms.

Last month, the Center published a one-page overview of the legislation, which includes a statement of need. Building off the successful “Justice Reinvestment” reforms that were enacted in by Rhode Island lawmakers in 2017, the state’s asset forfeiture laws should next come under scrutiny, as they can often lead to the unfettered government seizure of cars, cash, and other private property.

The legislation, co-written by the Center and the Hopkins Center, would reform Rhode Island’s asset forfeiture statutes and would:

  • Raise the bar for when government may seize property in the first place
  • Lower the bar by which innocent citizens can reclaim their property
  • Increase transparency so that public officials and citizens can provide appropriate oversight
  • Enhance administration to increase the credibility of law enforcement
  • Increase budget accountability to remove perverse incentives for seizure
Asset forfeiture laws represent one of the most serious assaults on private property by government today. While many might assume that these laws are directed at criminals, in reality simply being suspected or accused of a crime is sufficient for a state to take your property. Rhode Island is no different.

Asset Forfeiture Reform in Rhode Island

An Opportunity for Rhode Island to Lead the Way for Civil Rights, Responsible Government, and Conscientious Budgeting

by Giovanni D. Cicione, Esq., Chair, Stephen Hopkins Center for Civil Rights

  
OVERVIEW

Civil forfeiture laws represent one of the most serious assaults on cars, cash, and other private property by government today.  While many policymakers and citizens might assume that these laws are directed at criminals, in reality simply being suspected or accused of a crime is sufficient for a state to take your property.  Rhode Island is no different.

The Attorney General’s description of our state laws provides some sense of perspective and context:

The Narcotics and Organized Crime Unit (NOCU) is “responsible for processing all narcotics, gambling, and racketeering-related asset forfeitures.  Proceeds from the sale of forfeited assets represent an important source of ongoing drug and crime suppression efforts of state and local police.  In 2016, the Unit opened 284 new forfeiture cases and disposed of 277 cases.  In total, the Unit seized $1,682,426 in cash and property and processed $979,700 in total cash and property forfeited.  Under Rhode Island General Law, assets obtained through illegal drug operations are forfeited and distributed among state and local police, the Office of Attorney General, and the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities & Hospitals (BHDDH). As prescribed by statute, 20 percent of seized proceeds shall be provided to the Office of Attorney General to be used for further drug-related investigations and prosecutions, 70 percent is divided among the state and local police departments proportionately based upon their contribution to the investigation, and 10 percent provided to BHDDH to support substance abuse treatment programs.  Last year [2016], $449,206 in “cash” was distributed to the Rhode Island State Police and local police departments, $64,172 to BHDDH, and $128,344 to the Office of Attorney General. Another $283,380 worth of forfeited property was distributed to state and local law enforcement agencies for use or auction.” [i]

While the original good intent of such forfeiture laws cannot be disputed — removing the ill-gotten gains, resources, and instruments of those committing crimes from their reach — the experience of many years has drawn attention to needed reform in the authorizing statutes.  Since 2014, 25 states and the District of Columbia have passed forfeiture reforms. [ii]  Reform for Rhode Island is long overdue.

General Recommendations
  • Improve administration of forfeiture programs in order to increase the credibility of law enforcement as they conduct permitted seizures.
  • Build in transparency around asset forfeiture actions so that elected officials and citizens have the data necessary to provide oversight and improve the processes. This includes keeping track of how much the state seizes, whether the citizens are ever convicted of a crime, and how much money comes in from those seizures.
  • Local governments should not profit from asset forfeiture and should be held accountable if they abuse the process.
  • We should avoid seizures from innocent property owners and co-owners and build in legal protections before the state takes final title to property.
  • Most importantly, we must raise the bar and provide prompt and streamlined legal procedures to protect the property rights of innocent owners.
INTRODUCTION

This paper is intended to provide a detailed analysis of legislation proposed in the 2018 session of the Rhode Island General Assembly that would significantly reform those provisions of Rhode Island law which allow law enforcement agencies to seize money and property from criminal suspects and retain those monies for their own purposes.

Current Rhode Island law lets the state take your property on the basis of no more than suspicion.  If you don’t hire a lawyer and file a lawsuit against your own property, you soon lose it.  Worst of all, Rhode Island allows the law enforcement agency that seized your property to keep the majority of it to supplement their own budgets, creating a perverse incentive to violate your due process rights.

By way of example, and as noted in recent Senate Judiciary Committee testimony by Assistant Public Defender Michael A. DeLauro:

A leading Rhode Island Supreme Court decision amply illustrates the need for reform. In State v. Grullon, 783 A.2d 928, 929 (R.I. 2001) the defendant was arrested for and charged with unlawful delivery of a controlled substance. At the time of his arrest he was in possession of $2183.00 that was to be used in moving his family from New York City to Providence. Immediately after his arrest the state initiated successful forfeiture proceedings. After a jury waived trial in which the defendant was found “not guilty” of unlawful delivery of a controlled substance he sought to undo the forfeiture. In denying the request both the Superior and Supreme Courts relied on technical grounds holding that 1) it was not within the province of the court to do so and 2) the forfeiture did not violate due process and the Eighth Amendment’s protection against the imposition of excessive fines.[iii]

The Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity is leading a coalition to raise the bar for asset forfeiture and adopt better practices.  As a part of that effort the Hopkins Center has researched model legislation and best practices in the other states that have adopted reforms, including those adopted by our fellow New England State of New Hampshire.

FORFEITURE 101: GUILTY UNTIL PROVEN INNOCENT

At its most basic level, asset forfeiture is a trade-off between the demands of policing and the civil rights of citizens. [iv]  No one objects to taking weapons from criminals caught in the act, seizing the stolen goods they hold unjustly, or making them pay restitution for the harms inflicted as they absconded with their ill-gotten gains.  At the same time, no one would question the right of innocent owners to be secure in their property.  The idea that the government cannot seize your assets on a whim — that “due process” is required — is a bedrock principle of our constitutional democracy.  Asset forfeiture lives in a grey area between those competing ideals, and from time to time, the pendulum of freedom swings a bit wide.

Pirates, Prohibition, and Scarface: The Birth of a Problem

Chip Mellor gives an excellent summary of the origins of asset forfeiture laws in American law: [v]

American forfeiture law arose from the British Navigation Acts of the mid-17th century. Passed during England’s vast expansion as a maritime power, the Acts required that any ships importing or exporting goods from British ports fly under the British flag. If the Acts were violated, the ships or the cargo could be seized and forfeited to the crown regardless of the guilt or innocence of the owner. The British laws focused on seizing the assets because they could punish violations of the law even when they could not capture the violators. Using the British statutes as a model, the first U.S. Congress passed forfeiture statutes to aid in the collection of customs duties, which provided up to 90 percent of the finances for the federal government during that time.

The U.S. Supreme Court upheld early forfeiture statutes. Most important to understanding these early cases is the underlying rationale for permitting civil forfeiture even against innocent property owners. The Court reasoned that civil forfeiture was closely tied to the practical necessities of enforcing admiralty, piracy and customs laws. Such forfeiture permitted courts to obtain jurisdiction over property when it was virtually impossible to obtain jurisdiction over the persons guilty of violating maritime law. Justice Joseph Story wrote that the “vessel which commits the aggression is treated as the offender, as the guilty instrument or thing to which the forfeiture attachés, without any reference whatsoever to the character or conduct of the owner.” Justice Story justified these forfeitures “from the necessity of the case, as the only adequate means of suppressing the offense or wrong, or insuring an indemnity to the injured party.”

Although asset forfeiture law saw increased use during the Civil War and then again during Prohibition, it wasn’t until the 1980s and the heyday of the war on drugs that forfeiture became such a powerful weapon in the government’s arsenal. The fear of drug lords in mansions with pet tigers and machine guns ran rampant, and as with many erosions of civil rights, fear led to calls for more authority and more discretion to be placed in the hands of law enforcement.  And as with most such erosions, time has tended to demonstrate that, once in hand, the government will take such power and discretion to its limit.

RHODE ISLAND STATUTES: A FAILING GRADE FOR JUSTICE

The data in Rhode Island demonstrates that maxim fairly clearly.  According to the Institute for Justice, which produces a state-by-state report card on the topic, “Rhode Island has awful civil forfeiture laws.” [vi]  That blunt assessment and the D- grade award our state is reflective of at least three important factors in the existing law:

  1. Law enforcement need only show probable cause to seize property, but for property to be returned in Rhode Island, it is up to owners to prove by a preponderance of the evidence that their property is not forfeitable. (“Guilty until proven innocent,” as it were.)
  2. Innocent owners making claims also bear the burden of proving that they had no involvement in the illegal use of their property in order to recover it.
  3. Rhode Island law enforcement agencies retain 90% of all forfeiture proceeds, a generous incentive to aggressively wield their forfeiture powers.[vii]

Social Injustice

Another unfortunate feature of asset forfeiture schemes generally is that they have disparate impacts with regard to race and income.  Using data collected by Lucy Parsons Labs, a Chicago non-profit that focuses on police accountability, the Reason Foundation mapped the addresses where asset seizures took place in Cook County, Illinois.  The results were not surprising.

“This data shows what we already know, that the seizures tried by CCSAO overwhelming steal the possessions of poor people,” Lucy Parsons Labs said in a statement to Reason. “The data shows that the seizures are clumped in the South and West side, overwhelmingly African-American neighborhoods.”[viii]  (Emphasis added.)

Law enforcement agencies in Rhode Island are required to report their forfeitures to the state treasurer and attorney general, who then aggregate the data and provide annual reports to the legislature.  Disappointingly, these reports are not available online.  Law enforcement agencies reportedly seized more than $8.3 million through asset forfeiture proceedings between 2009 and 2014, averaging almost $1.4 million per calendar year.

The current asset forfeiture structure in Rhode Island not only demeans the law and our judicial system, it demeans the profession for all of law enforcement.  Our laws are bad for good cops.

A SOLUTION: THE ASSET FORFEITURE PROCESS AND PROPERTY RIGHT PRESERVATION ACT

The reform act now pending before the Rhode island General Assembly was drafted with three key goals in mind:

  1. Add well-defined structure to the administration of forfeiture programs in order to increase the credibility of law enforcement as it undertakes permitted seizures
  2. Avoid seizures from innocent property owners and remove financial incentives that would encourage overreach in this area
  3. Make the seizure process transparent so that elected officials and citizens have the data necessary to provide oversight and improve
    the processes
Key Provisions

Restore Revenue Oversight to the General Assembly

Current Rhode Island law has none of the 10 national best practices for accounting for forfeiture fund spending. [ix]  This means that we have the lowest possible rating for accountability for spending of seized funds.  While many states are adding oversight requirements for local departments, horror stories of uncontrolled spending abound.  The Institute for Justice compiled a list of the six “craziest” expenditures that can be viewed on YouTube[x] but bear summarizing here:

#6  Steak, booze, and CeeLo Green tickets

#5    Tequila, rum, kegs of beer, and a margarita machine

#4  A six-day law conference (junket) in Hawaii

#3  A $90,000 Dodge Viper

#2  A $35,000 inmate-built “party house”

#1  $40,000 for drugs and prostitutes

Revenue from seizures is in part paid directly to the local law enforcement agencies conducting the seizures.  While reasonable as a means of rewarding good policing, this system also carries the risk of creating a financial incentive to abuse the process.  The reform act would direct all funds seized under state law to the general treasury, eliminating one of the last vestiges of what is generally referred to as a “restricted receipt” account system, consistent with broad state reform efforts undertaken on this front in the past.  Essentially, the move away from restricted receipt accounts returns budgeting authority to the General Assembly, rather than creating slush funds with little or no accountability.

These off-budget accounts lead to waste in the worst cases, but even in the best cases, they end-run the authority of the legislature and leave the spending decisions to the whims of local agencies.  A more-conscientious approach not only retains the checks and balances of legislative oversight of budgeting, but also helps avoid the egregious and embarrassing expenditures that so often make the news and demean the reputations of law enforcement agencies everywhere.

Protect Innocent Property Owners

Under the current system, innocent Rhode Islanders must live in fear of losing their cars or their homes because little Johnny was caught selling pot to his friends in the family minivan or his bedroom.  Reforming the financial incentives as noted above reduces the risk of such overreach by law enforcement and leaves the spending discretion that our forfeiture program provides squarely in the hands of the legislature.

This shift in incentives, coupled with procedural protections omitted from early asset forfeiture laws, creates a strong set of defenses for innocent property owners.  The legal process is spelled out clearly, deadlines and timing are addressed in detail, and innocent owners promptly get to make their cases to the court.

The model case for why these rights need to be enshrined in law is that of Anthonia Nwaorie.  As recently reported by the Washington Post, Ms. Nwaorie, a 59-year-old registered nurse, was traveling to Nigeria to open a medical clinic and had $41,000 in cash she had saved for that purpose seized for no reason other the fact that she was carrying a large amount of cash.  Six months later she has yet to get it back, in part because law enforcement demanded that she first sign a legal release protecting them from lawsuits. [xi]

Data Collection and Transparency

The reform act is not intended to weaken this valuable law enforcement tool.  In order to ensure that it is being used properly and judiciously and to further allow the legislature to monitor its effects and reach over the years to come, the act provides detailed data collection and reporting guidelines.

These data points will allow us to compare Rhode Island to other states that are collecting similar data and to assure ourselves that these tools are being used, but not abused.  Transparency, particularly in the realm of law enforcement, is vital toward establishing trust in government and a feeling withing communities that all are being treated fairly.  The law should be blind, but the legislature should not. [xii]

Outline

An outline and brief description of each substantive sections of the model legislation is provided in Appendix A.

CONCLUSION

The criminal justice system today looks little like that of its predecessors in the common law or even the system created at the time of the birth of our country.  It is larger, more expansive, more expensive, and covers more conduct and more citizens than ever before.

But that does not mean that the fundamental aspects of criminal justice that serve to ensure a fair and just system for all citizens should be ignored.  In fact, quite the opposite.  A robust criminal justice system demands robust protections for innocent citizens, to ensure they are not unfairly caught up in the system.

Asset forfeiture reform would prevent unjust seizures from innocent citizens. It would protect citizens from overzealous law enforcement action and provide peace of mind for those taking part in wholly innocent and blameless — even admirable — behavior.  It would empower the legislature by restoring its right and proper budgetary authority over seized funds.  It would also make great strides toward building in protections for law enforcement that ensure their reputations, their professionalism, and their community support remain as solid as possible.

APPENDIX A: SECTION OUTLINE OF MODEL LEGISLATION

This outline is intended to serve as a handy guide to the substantive sections of the legislation and is not comprehensive or a complete list of provisions.

Section I

Chapter 1:  Title.

Chapter 2:  Definitions.

Chapter 3:  Purpose.

Chapter 4:  Property Subject to Criminal Forfeiture.

Chapter 5:  Exemption for cars of modest value.

Chapter 6:  Conviction and proof to a defined legal standard are required for seizure and forfeiture of assets.

Chapter 7:  Substitution of assets of the accused criminal trying to avoid forfeiture is allowed if the assets that would otherwise be subject are out of reach.

Chapter 8:  These laws provide the exclusive process for forfeiture in Rhode Island.

Chapter 9:  There is no joint and several liability in forfeiture that would allow a third party to have property seized.

Chapter 10: Seizure must generally be by court order.

Chapter 11: If the police are concerned about losing access to the property that should be seized, they can do so without a court order so as to avoid removal or destruction of the property by the suspect.

Chapter 12: Seizer of real property (a house) must be done by court order.

Chapter 13: Record keeping requirements are outlined.

Chapter 14: Government can’t force an innocent property owner to give up due process rights in order to get property back.

Chapter 15: The property owner can secure a bond or substitute property of equal value to get seized property back while waiting for trial.  This is particularly important for innocent owners who have business assets seized and would otherwise be prevented from earning a living.

Chapter 16: Provides a pre-trial hearing process in order to determine that a seizure was done legally.

Chapter 17: Details rules for discovery and trial procedure.

Chapter 18: Outlines trial procedure and requires the state to promptly give its reasons and justifications for seizure and forfeiture and provides clear proced-ural steps for the government to follow in order to complete the forfeiture.

Chapter 19: Allows a property owner to argue that the value of a seizure is disproportionate to the crime of which he or she was accused.

Chapter 20: Protects banks and other secured parties to the extent of their interests in seized property (for example, mortgages and car loans.)

Chapter 21: Protects innocent owners.

Chapter 22: Outlines appeal procedures.

Chapter 23: Describes the process for disposition of proceeds from forfeitures,
including restitution of victims, costs of police investigations, and the costs of the prosecution.

Chapter 24: Provides limits on retention or sale of property by law enforcement agencies.

Chapter 25: Places requirements for the prompt and complete return of the property of innocent owners.

Chapter 26: Limits the ability of law enforcement to end-run state due process protections by turning over seized property to the federal government.

Chapter 27: Allows innocent owners the right to recover attorney’s fees spent in fighting to get property back.

Chapter 28: Creates a process for returning the property of otherwise innocent owners who have been deported, and a process for abandonment of that property if no interested party can be identified.

Chapter 29: Creates penalties for violations of these laws.

Chapter 30: Makes clear that these laws preempt and local laws, rules, procedures, or practices.

Chapter 31: Severability of any provision found invalid.

Section II

Strikes the existing laws relating to asset forfeiture in Rhode Island, which have been replaced by the laws in Section I.

Section III

Provides that the legislation would take effect upon passage.


[i] Office of the Attorney General. 2016 Annual Report. Available at: www.riag.ri.gov/documents/2016AnnualReport.pdf (Accessed 5/14/18.)

[ii] Institute for Justice. “Civil Forfeiture Reforms on the State Level.” Available at: ij.org/activism/legislation/civil-forfeiture-legislative-highlights (Accessed 5/14/18.)

[iii] DeLauro, “Michael A. Written Testimony of Michael A DeLauro, Assistant Public Defender, Director of Training and Legislative Liaison, addressed to Senator Erin Lynch Prate, Chairwoman, Senate Judiciary Committee.” April 26, 2018.

[iv] This summary draws heavily from the “Policing for Profit” report published by the Institute for Justice, authored by Dick M. Carpenter II, Ph.D., Lisa Knepper, Angela C. Erickson and Jennifer McDonald, with contributions from Wesley Hottot and Keith Diggs. Available at: http://ij.org/report/policing-for-profit (Accessed 5/14/18.)

[v] Mellor, Chip. “Civil Forfeiture Laws and the Continued Assault on Private Property.” Forbes. June 8, 2011. Available at: www.forbes.com/2011/06/08/property-civil-forfeiture.html (Accessed: 5/14/18.)

[vi] Institute for Justice. “Rhode Island earns a D- for its civil forfeiture laws.” Available at: ij.org/pfp-state-pages/pfp-Rhode-Island (Accessed 5/14/18.)

[vii] Ibid.

[viii] Ciaramella, C.J. “Poor Neighborhoods Hit Hardest by Asset Forfeiture in Chicago, Data Shows.” June 13, 2017 Available at: reason.com/blog/2017/06/13/poor-neighborhoods-hit-hardest-by-asset (Accessed 5/14/18.)

[ix] Erickson, Angela C., Jennifer McDonald and Mindy Menjou. “Forfeiture Transparency & Accountability: Rhode Island Report Card.” Available at: ij.org/report/forfeiture-transparency-accountability/?state=US-RI (Accessed 5/14/18.)

[x] Institute for Justice. “The Top 6 Craziest Things Cops Spent Forfeiture Money On.” YouTube. January 31, 2014. Available at: www.youtube.com/watch?time_continue=6&v=n2iJ7UBODw8 (Accessed 5/14/18.)

[xi] Flynn, Meaghan. “She saved thousands to open a medical clinic in Nigeria. U.S. Customs took all of it at the airport.” Washington Post. May 9, 2018. Available at: www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2018/05/09/she-saved-thousands-to-open-a-medical-clinic-in-nigeria-u-s-customs-took-all-of-it-at-the-airport/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.55b319966e78 (Accessed 5/14/18.)

[xii] Plessy v. Ferguson, 163 U.S. 537, 559 (1896): “In view of the constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law. The humblest is the peer of the most powerful. The law regards man as man, and takes no account of his surroundings or of his color when his civil rights as guaranteed by the supreme law of the land are involved.”

Rhode Island lawmakers - female and male - experienced first-hand the safety and fun of natural hair braiding at a cultural exhibition yesterday at the State House.

Center Commends Senators Who Enjoyed a Safe State House Hair Braid

Lawmakers Experience the Safe Practice of Natural Hair Braiding

RI Freedom Braiders Hold Successful Art Exhibit and Braiding Demonstration at Statehouse

Support Hair Braider Freedom

Click here to email your state Rep & Senator that you support “hair braider freedom.”

Providence, RI — Rhode Island lawmakers – female and male – experienced first-hand the safety and fun of natural hair braiding at a cultural exhibition yesterday at the State House.

Senators Jabour, Morgan, Felag, Euer, and Conley, among other lawmakers, had stylish braids safely woven with their own hair.

The Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity believes women who practice this art form should have the #RightToEarn a living without permission from the government to work.

After many states have acted in recent years to remove licensing burdens for natural hair braiding, Rhode Island remains among a minority of states that still maintain such onerous laws.

House bill H7565 and Senate Bill S2323, which were heard earlier this year in the House Corporations and Senate Commerce committees, respectively, would exempt natural hair braiders from the requirement to be licensed as hairdressers or cosmeticians, while also defining the safe practice of natural hair braiding.

In 2017, similar legislation unanimously passed the House, but was not taken up in the Senate.

“There are no chemicals or sharp tools involved in this twisting of hair art form,” commented Mike Stenhouse, CEO for the Center, who had an extension twisted into his own hair. “Without any evidence of actual consumer harm, this licensing burden is prohibitive to many people who would prefer to start new careers and earn paychecks instead of receiving welfare checks.”

In a major report by the Center – The RIght to Earn a Living – issued in January, Rhode Island was cited as ranking as one of the 10 most onerously burdened states when it comes to occupational licensing. Additionally our state already suffers from bottom 10 rankings on the Family Prosperity Index (FPI), overall business climate, and on Jobs & Opportunity Index (JOI).

We are pleased to join with dozens of our fellow think tank partners in support of keeping automobile prices low. California adopted statewide motor vehicle greenhouse gas emission rules in September 2004 to impose very strict limits on the emissions. We are calling on the EPA to revoke their special privileges.

Center Co-Signs National Coalition Letter to the EPA to Revoke the “California Waiver”

The Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity is pleased to join with dozens of our fellow think tank partners in support of keeping automobile prices low. California adopted statewide motor vehicle greenhouse gas (GHG) emission rules in September 2004 to impose very strict limits on the emission of CO2 from automobile tailpipes.  While the federal Clean Air Act (CAA) generally preempts states from adopting their own motor vehicle emission regulations, CAA Section 209(b) allows the state to petition for a California waiver from that prohibition.  If EPA grants such a waiver to California, other states may then adopt (without amendment, by legislation or executive order) the California regulatory regime.

In December 2005, California requested that EPA grant a waiver of preemption for its GHG regulations for automobiles.  In April, 2007, the United States Supreme Court, in Massachusetts vs. EPA, empowered EPA to regulate CO2 under the Clean Air Act.  As a result, the California waiver request came under active consideration at EPA.  The request was denied in 2008 by the George W. Bush administration.  However, in January 2009, the California Air Resources Board requested that EPA reconsider its denial.  In July 2009, the Obama administration granted California’s waiver request, clearing the way for California to implement its motor vehicle GHG regulations – and for other states to follow suit.

Currently, 13 States – Connecticut, Delaware, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington – and the District of Columbia have adopted California’s stricter automobile emissions standards.  In addition, nine – CT, ME, MD, MA, NJ, NY, OR, RI, and VT – have adopted California’s “zero emission vehicle” (ZEV) mandate.

Building off the successful “Justice Reinvestment” reforms that were enacted in by Rhode Island lawmakers in 2017, the state’s asset forfeiture laws should next come under scrutiny, as they can often lead to the unfettered government seizure of cars, cash, and other private property.

Asset Forfeiture Reform in Rhode Island: Summary of 2018 Legislation – H7640 and S2681

Building off the successful “Justice Reinvestment” reforms that were enacted in by Rhode Island lawmakers in 2017, the state’s asset forfeiture laws should next come under scrutiny, as they can often lead to the unfettered government seizure of cars, cash, and other private property. While many policymakers might assume that such laws are directed at criminals, in reality, simply being accused of a crime or violating a regulation may be sufficient for the state to take your property.

Rhode Island was recently graded at a D- in a national report by the Institute for Justice for its weak civil forfeiture laws, which, nationally, have led to some of the most egregious infringements of private property rights in the U.S. today. In the past 12 years, over $17 million of private property has been seized in our state.

While the original good intent of forfeiture laws cannot be disputed — removing the illegal gains, resources, and instruments of those committing crimes from their reach — decades of experience has made obvious the need for statutory reforms, long overdue if Rhode Island is to keep pace with criminal justice reforms being made in other states across America.

Current Law: Rhode Island law sets a very low bar on the front-end by allowing the government to seize property on the mere basis of criminal suspicion and for non-criminal regulatory violations. If you don’t hire a lawyer and file a lawsuit to reclaim your own property, you soon lose it. On the back-end, Rhode Island also sets a very high bar for innocent property owners to reclaim what is rightfully theirs. Further, state law allows the government agency that seized your property to keep the majority of it as a means to supplement their own budgets, creating a perverse incentive to violate due process and property rights.

In its January 2018 report, Right To Earn a Living, the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity advocated that civil asset forfeiture reforms would improve the State’s poorly ranked business climate, by raising the bar for asset forfeiture from businesses and individuals as well as to adopt better forfeiture administration. The Hopkins Center has researched best practices in the other states that have adopted reforms, and drafted language new criminal forfeiture law that every Rhode Island legislator could support.

Also supported by business groups, the RI ACLU, the RI Families Coalition, and civil society leaders, the bi-partisan legislation (H7640 & S2681) represents a total rewrite of existing statutes and which includes the following key features:

  1. Raised the bar for seizures: Avoids government taking for civil violations and from non-defendant property owners and co-owners, while also building-in legal protections before the state seizes property.
  2. Lowered the bar for due process: Provides less-burdensome, prompt, and streamlined legal procedures for innocent property owners to reclaim seized assets.
  3. Increased transparency: Greater transparency around forfeiture actions so that public officials and citizens have the data to provide appropriate oversight. The 4-pages of new reporting provisions include keeping track of and reporting how much the government seizes, whether property owners are ever convicted of a crime, and how much money comes in from those seizures, as opposed to the 4-lines of reporting in current law.
  4. Enhanced administration: Improves administration of forfeiture programs in order to increase the credibility of law enforcement as they conduct permitted seizures; including prohibition of sale of assets for any person’s gain and a streamlined process for returning property.
  5. Budget accountability: Unelected bureaucrats in state and local agencies should not be empowered to manage profits from asset forfeitures or be free from public accountability. Legitimately seized moneys go to the state’s general fund where duly elected officials decide if and how to redistribute them.

The RI Center for Freedom & Prosperity is the Ocean State’s leading voice against the wreckage caused by our state’s progressive agenda.

As the state’s leading research organization, advancing family and business friendly values… the mission of our Center is to make Rhode Island a better place to call home – to raise a family and to build a career.

While progressives value government-centric, taxpayer-funded dependency… our Center believes in the value of hard work and the free-enterprise system.

We understand that in order for more Rhode Island families to have a better quality of life, that more and better businesses are needed to create more and better jobs.

Your donation will help us fight the union-progressive movement and, instead, advocate for pro-family, pro-business policies and values.

Please make a generous, tax-deductible gift to support our Center today!