New Louisiana law will do little to boost civil asset forfeiture transparency

Published 6:13 am Friday, August 11, 2023

By Victor Skinner | The Center Square contributor

(The Center Square)— A new law that requires district attorneys to produce annual reports on human trafficking and related civil asset forfeiture revenues could benefit exploited children but will likely do little to expose more fundamental issues with forfeitures in Louisiana.

Senate Bill 31, sponsored by Franklinton Republican Sen. Beth Mizell and signed into law by Gov. John Bel Edwards, creates a database of human trafficking arrests, convictions, restitution, fines, and civil asset forfeitures.

Mizell testified during committee hearings the intent behind bill is to “give some clarity … to the crime of trafficking in Louisiana,” which involved 632 victims last year.

Mizell also wants to explore why current law requiring $2,000 per instance payments into the Exploited Children’s Fund for convicted traffickers had only generated $3,600 through this spring. Exposing the reasons could result in more funds for exploited children.

Critics of the civil forfeiture system contend SB 31, which took effect Aug. 1, will also help to shed light on assets from traffickers forfeited to the state, but will not address the more fundamental issues with the system more broadly.

Like most states, Louisiana’s civil forfeiture system is separate from the criminal system, and the threshold attorneys must meet to secure forfeiture are much lower than for criminal convictions, leaving some vulnerable to losing their assets even when acquitted of the related crime, said Lee McGrath, senior legislative counsel for the Institute for Justice.

The civil forfeitures also do not come with the same due process rights as criminal cases, which puts “poor people who cannot afford an attorney at a disadvantage,” McGrath said.

“This is a complicated system … because if you’re poor and indigent, you don’t qualify for a public defender,” he said.

While SB 31 “is a step in the right direction to address the problem of human trafficking and qualify how big of a problem that is,” McGrath said, it doesn’t expose or address the bigger issues of fairness.

Loren Lampert, executive director of the Louisiana District Attorney’s Association, testified during committee hearings that information cited in SB 31 is already collected and reported, and would simply be taken from existing reports for the database the bill creates.

That data will only pertain to civil asset forfeitures regarding human trafficking, which are typically a small percentage of overall civil asset forfeitures that mostly come from drug crimes, McGrath noted.

To create a more transparent and fair system, lawmakers could expose all civil asset forfeiture revenues, particularly from drug crimes, and shift to a criminal forfeiture system that is currently only used in three states: North Carolina, New Mexico and Maine, McGrath said.