Don’t limit drug asset forfeiture, study group says

State, local police have netted $1.8 million since 2015

By Guy Page

A proposed law limiting forfeiture of convicted drug dealers’ property isn’t needed, a study group established by the 2022 Legislature recommended December 15.

Under current federal law, state and local police who participate in the arrest of a drug dealer are allowed to seize and resell some assets – cars, boats, cash, etc.. Supporters say forfeiture is both an incentive for law enforcement and a disincentive for the drug dealers. But critics say it injects a money motive into law enforcement. 

Drug dealer assets forfeited to local Vermont police since 2015

But the study group said it couldn’t find any abuses of the current system. 

The study group was the end result of a watered-down anti-forfeiture bill introduced by Reps. Maxine Grad (D-Moretown), Barbara Rachelson (D-Burlington), and Felisha Leffler (R-Enosburg). As introduced, H533 would have prohibited state and local law enforcement from sharing in proceeds forfeited under federal law except for cases involving more than $100,000. It also would have moved forfeiture proceedings from civil to criminal courts, and offered relief to innocent parties and lienholders. 

Those requirements were a bridge too far for the 2022 Legislature, but – as often occurs – lawmakers compromised by establishing a summer study group. 

The panel members included Superior Court Judge Thomas Zonay; Erin Jacobsen, Office of the Attorney General; Ashlynn Doyon, Office of the State Treasurer; Marshall Pahl, Office of the Defender General; Tucker Jones, Department of Public Safety; Timothy Lueders-Dumont, Department of State’s Attorneys and Sheriffs; Sheriff Roger Marcoux (Chair), Vermont Sheriffs’ Association; and Jessica Brown, Center for Justice Reform at Vermont Law School.

The panel was law-enforcement heavy, as its recommendations showed: “the Working Group did not identify a need for proposed legislation relating to the state forfeiture process. The Working Group members are not aware of any complaints concerning abuse of the state or federal forfeiture processes in Vermont,” the report said. 

The State may conduct its own property seizures (there have been 12 since 2015), but more often state and local police participate in federal proceedings. 

State Police data from 2019 includes 19 closed currency seizure cases with complete data. The average seizure amount for these cases was $9,000, with an average of 14 months between the date the seizure was made or recorded and the date proceeds were received. In those 19 cases, the State Police received an average of 37% of the seized currency.

The Working Group also pleaded stressing an already overworked Vermont Judiciary system:

“The dockets in the Criminal Division are over-burdened. The Judiciary is working diligently to move criminal matters to resolution as expeditiously as possible. However, the resources available – staff, buildings/courtrooms, security, and time – are fixed. Expanding the scope and complexity of forfeiture proceedings would likely result in other matters not being addressed as quickly as presently possible.”

The Treasurer’s Office also begged off:

The Treasurer’s Office has neither the physical space nor a mechanism in place to administer a public sale of forfeited property. The Treasurer’s Office would like to be excluded from the forfeiture process for drug-related assets.

As the Vermont AG’s office, forfeiture is small potatoes. Between 2008 and 2022, the office has collected a mere $7,123. 

The Department of Public Safety argued that the seizures hit out-of-state drug dealers where it hurts them the most – in their wallets.

The seizure and forfeiture of drug proceeds through the federal asset forfeiture process is an important component of the Vermont State Police drug supply disruption efforts. The interstate illicit drug trade is an economic market fueled by profit-seeking drug trafficking organizations primarily from Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New York. Illicit drugs come into Vermont from these states, and the profits from the sale of these drugs are typically transported in vehicles back to these states in the form of U.S. currency.

The lone dissenting voice came from Jessica Brown of the Center for Justice Reform at Vermont Law School. She argued that federal reimbursement of 80% of proceeds is a heady incentive for state and local cops to forgo the state forfeiture system, which provides just 45%. She also rebuts the majority claim of finding no abuses: “the Working Group had no real capacity to gather accurate information about the experience of Vermonters who have faced forfeiture proceedings.” She recommends Vermont adopt a similar law passed by Maine in 2021. 

Categories: Legislation

5 replies »

  1. Abuses are hard to find because few people have the resources to fight back. Notwithstanding that, there have been lawsuits. Technically, seizing assets before conviction isn’t legal, but is frequently done. “Lehto’s Law”, on YouTube, reported of one lawsuit where the authorities had to cover all that was forfeited, plus pay damages.

    • Drug seizures are an important law enforcement tool. They help stop the drug trade. Facts are facts. Our cops face enough danger without having to deal with anti-police rhetoric.