An organization devoted to limiting the scope and reach of government power this week hailed the signing of a New Hampshire bill on asset forfeiture as a step forward for a state “in dire need of reform.”
Republican Gov. Chris Sununu last week signed into law Senate Bill 498, which directs the state Attorney General to collect and publish online statewide data on forfeiture and seizure of personal property as a part of police investigations. The legislation sailed through the Senate and House of Representatives during the last session without even needing any roll call votes.
The Institute for Justice, a legal advocacy group that has litigated a number of cases involving eminent domain and asset forfeiture in recent years, issued a news release saying that the new law would “shed light on the state’s secretive forfeiture spending.”
“The Granite State forfeited $1.15 million from drug-related seizures between 1999 and 2013, or more than $82,000 per year,” the institute wrote. “And under state law, law enforcement can collect up to 90 percent of the proceeds from forfeited property: local law enforcement receive 45 percent, while another 45 percent is sent to the state drug forfeiture fund.”
The institute noted that the Attorney General will have the freedom to add additional reporting requirements as needed, and the release said that prior to the passage of SB498, New Hampshire had failing grades in five of the institute’s six metrics tracking states on forfeiture transparency and accountability.
The topic of asset forfeiture has garnered significant attention in recent years because of cases where a criminal suspect was ultimately exonerated, but the funds or property seized were not returned. An increased focus on the practice led to investigations that revealed cases of questionable seizures and misspending of funds by some policing entities.
When the New Hampshire Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on SB498 in January, it heard from Brian Kenny of the Nashua Police Department, who spoke against the legislation on behalf of both his department and the New Hampshire Association of Police Chiefs.
Kenny explained that as the detective lieutenant of the Nashua department in charge of their drug unit, his staff’s operations were largely funded by seized property.
“If [forfeiture] were to cease to exist, Nashua would be in quite a predicament,” he told the committee. “The positions are funded through the city, however, the equipment, the money used to purchase narcotics on the street, the training of the detectives and so many other things are funded solely by forfeiture.”
He said his larger concern was the plan to publish the comprehensive asset forfeiture data online. Kenny told committee members that his department may use vehicles that were seized as part of undercover operations, and if identifying information about the vehicle was published online, it could jeopardize officers.
“The idea of one of my undercover detectives, being in a vehicle that is on a public website as being seized in a drug case screams [a threat to] safety for my undercover detective,” Kenny said.
The committee also heard from the Attorney General’s office, which expressed concerns about the time and effort required for collecting all the required data and publishing it. But Jennifer McDonald of the Institute for Justice told committee members that states that already have such laws in place have not seen any negative repercussions.
“Forfeiture activity in New Hampshire still occurs with practically no transparency to get it to the public, or even more importantly to you, its legislators,” McDonald said. “Your counterparts in other state legislatures have significantly more information about how forfeiture is used in their states than you currently do.”
Rep. Mike Sylvia, R-Belmont, one of the sponsors of the legislation, said that the current data is so lacking that New Hampshire has little ability to root out potential abuses in the use of forfeiture.
“I would certainly hope that anytime a seizure is made in the state, whether it's through just local action or state or federal actions … all that data that we're looking for, certainly must be contained and tracked,” he said. “Obviously, we don't want things just getting lost.”