An effort is underway to change Illinois' civil-asset forfeiture laws, which critics have said are unfair, inconsistent and chaotic.
Ben Ruddell, a criminal justice policy attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union Illinois, said that under the state's current laws, residents can lose their property "without ever being arrested or charged with a crime.”
Ruddell said the ACLU is part of a coalition that includes lawmakers and community interests from both sides of the political spectrum who are pushing state lawmakers to reform the forfeiture system, which Ruddell said has been in place for many decades, but wasn't as frequently used -- and abused -- by state law enforcement agencies until Illinois' effort in the 1980s and '90s to prosecute drug traffickers.
Ruddell testified in April at a hearing about the forfeiture issue, held jointly by the Judiciary Civil and Criminal Committees of the Illinois House of Representatives.
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Ruddell said it's urgent that legislators rewrite the forfeiture laws to make sure "Illinois residents whose property is seized by police cannot be permanently deprived of that property without clear proof that they were involved in criminal activity."
“Our state’s laws in this area currently are grossly unfair... as preposterous as it seems, you can lose your property – including your car, cash or even your home – without ever being arrested or charged with a crime...the system is bent to favor police and prosecutors who can use the laws as a profit center,” Ruddell said.
The law provides that almost all of the money and property forfeited from Illinoisans goes directly to the law enforcement agency that seized the property. Many critics of forfeiture laws argue that such a system induces law enforcement to seize more property as a revenue-generating opportunity.
Statistics provided by the ACLU show that Illinois residents forfeit more than $20 million in property each year -- and that doesn't include seizures in Illinois by the federal government.
The ACLU estimated that the amount in Illinois forfeitures in 2013 topped $27 million.