Friday, December 19th, 2014

Bob-O-Meter

Consolidate asset forfeiture laws


Will propose amendments to asset forfeiture laws in 2011 General Assembly session.


Updates

After year delay, new laws approved


Bob McDonnell pledged in 2009 to solve a problem that was hindering the forfeiture of criminal assets.

"Asset forfeiture laws are scattered in a confusing network throughout the code of Virginia,” McDonnell's gubernatorial campaign declared in its public safety platform released that August. "Law enforcement and prosecutors are discouraged by the system.

"To be more effective, these laws must be streamlined. To properly address this task, McDonnell will direct the secretary of public safety  to consult with experts and stakeholders and recommend amendments to Virginia's laws for the 2011 session of the General Assembly.”

We noted in 2011 that the General Assembly adjourned that year without any action to consolidate the laws. McDonnell's office told us that the governor decided to push back the issue to the 2012 legislative session. So we initially rated the promise In the Works.  

Jeff Caldwell, a spokesman for the governor, recently told us McDonnell fulfilled this promise last year by signing a bill that streamlined the various asset forfeiture provisions. The measure was unanimously approved by the House and Senate.

"The 2012 legislation required that all asset forfeitures in the commonwealth be handled in the same manner,” Caldwell wrote in an e-mail. "This will assist Commonwealth"s attorneys in seizing of items in a consistent manner. This consolidation bill leaves the substantive provisions of forfeiture intact while directing one procedural model found in one place in the code.”

We spoke to Tom Shaia, a deputy commonwealth's attorney in Spotsylvania County who helped draft the law. He said that prior to the measure, there were five sets of procedures for selling a criminal"s assets and conveying the proceeds to the state.

"It was a hodge podge,”Shaia said. "It depended on the case. It depended on the statute you were proceeding under. It depended on the circumstances.”

Filing deadlines varied for different cases. In the case of a car used in a robbery, a commonwealth's attorney had up to 60 days from the time that vehicle was seized to file the litigation seeking to forfeit the asset to the state, Shaia said. In the case of a car seized in connection with a drug case that deadline was 90 days. Now the deadline for both cases is 90 days.

Also different cases were handled by different courts. Forfeiture of assets related to an illegal gambling operation were handled by general district court while drug asset forfeitures were handled in circuit court, Shaia said. Now forfeitures in both those kinds of cases are handled by a circuit court.

McDonnell was a year late in meeting his self-imposed deadline to seek the new forfeiture law. But in the end, he delivered, so we'll upgrade our rating to Promise Kept.

 

Sources:

McDonnell for Governor, "McDonnell unveils public safety plan,” August, 2009.

PolitiFact Virginia, "Proposals delayed, but on the way, Oct. 3, 2011.

E-mail from Jeff Caldwell, spokesman for Gov. Bob McDonnell, Jan. 2, 2012.

Legislative Information System, "H.B. 348,” accessed Jan. 3, 2012.

Governor Bob McDonnell, "Governor McDonnell announces public safety agenda for 2012 session,”Jan. 19, 2012.

Interviews with Tom Shaia, deputy commonwealth"s attorney in Spotsylvania County, Jan. 4-10, 2012.

Proposals delayed, but on the way

Virginia's expanding efforts to seize the ill-gotten gains of criminals is causing a technical problem for lawyers, judges and police officers.

There's no easy way to find all of Virginia's laws regulating the forfeiture of criminal assets. They've been scattered throughout the massive state code as legislators have turned to seizure as a way to combat drug dealers, gambling enterprises, terrorists and gangs.

Bob McDonnell heard lots of complaints about this when he was attorney general from 2006 to 2009. When he ran for governor in 2009, he promised a solution.

"Asset forfeiture laws are scattered in a confusing network throughout the code of Virginia,” McDonnell"s campaign said in a policy paper on public safety released that August. "Law enforcement and prosecutors are discouraged by the system.

"To be more effective, these laws must be clarified and streamlined. To properly address this task, McDonnell will direct the secretary of public safety to consult with experts and stakeholders and recommend amendments to Virginia"s laws for the 2011 session of the General Assembly.”

But this year's General Assembly session ended on February 27 and McDonnell did not  address the issue. What happened?

Tucker Martin, McDonnell's chief of communications, said the governor decided to focus on other priorities. He noted McDonnell won legislative approval this year to borrow money for transportation and to significantly increase the number of degrees awarded by Virginia colleges over the next 15 years.

Martin said the administration "will move forward” on forfeiture laws during next year's General Assembly session, scheduled to start Jan. 11. "A successful administration is one that adjusts legislative policy schedules appropriately to ensure the greatest likelihood of success,” he told us in an email. "That is what we have done with our asset forfeiture proposals.”

Secretary of Public Safety Marla Graff Decker said the governor is not trying to broaden or restrict forfeiture laws, but merely wants to organize them and make sure they are consistent. She said her office has worked on the task since the start of McDonnell's administration in January 2010.
 
"This is not a sexy issue, but it's important and involved,” she said.

Although McDonnell has pushed his self-imposed deadline back a year, he still says he'll deliver. We rate this promise In the Works.

Sources:

McDonnell for Governor, Public Safety Plan, August 2009.

Interview with Marla Graff Decker, secretary of public safety, Sept. 30, 2011.

Email interview with Tucker Martin, chief of communications for Gov. Bob McDonnell, Sept. 23, 2011.

Commonwealth Data Point, Asset Forfeiture and SeizureFund 2009-11.