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N.H. Senate Debates Whether to Nix Drug Forfeiture Fund

Every year New Hampshire reels in about $50,000 to $60,000 of drug forfeiture money, which is then used to fight drug crimes.

Senate lawmakers are currently weighing a bill that would change the state’s forfeiture laws.

Currently in New Hampshire, 45 percent of the money and assets seized in a drug bust are given directly to local law enforcement agencies to help fight future drug crimes.

But some lawmakers want this money to be put into the general fund saying that giving police officers who collect this money the authority to then go out and spend it, creates a conflict of interest.

ATC Host Peter Biello spoke with NHPR reporter Paige Sutherland on the details behind this dilemma. 

So how much money is actually collected in these drug seizures and where is it going?

On average anywhere from $50,000 to $60,000 a year is collected across the state. The assets seized are mainly in the form of money and at times stolen cars.

How the current breakdown works is 45 percent of the proceeds collected in a drug seizure go to that law enforcement agency who made the bust, 45 percent goes to the state Department of Justice to fund its drug task force and 10 percent to the state's Department of Health and Human Services to be used for drug treatment and prevention.

This money is something law enforcement say is crucial to fighting the heroin and opioid crisis the state is currently facing.

And so this new piece of legislation seeks to change all that?

Yes. First it wants to make sure all this money is put into the general fund and out of law enforcement’s hands. The prime sponsor of the bill Rep. Dan McGuire says having this current drug forfeiture fund pushed police to make more busts because the more seizures you make essentially the more funding your agency would get.

New Hampshire is not the only state considering this. If the law is passed N.H. will join seven other states including Maine where zero dollars of drug seizure money is directly given to law enforcement.

Another key issue is it would change how these assets can be turned into forfeiture dollars. Under the statue, law enforcement can seize property and go forward with the forfeiture process if someone is arrested or even suspected of a crime but does not have to be convicted.

If this law is passed, a criminal conviction would be required before law enforcement could seize this property and process the forfeiture claim. This is a big issue for the New Hampshire ACLU, which say seizing one’s property without proof that a crime was in fact committed in obtaining this property and then going out and spending it  - violates one’s civil rights.

But the Attorney General’s Office argues that as its current policy those who wish to freeze the forfeiture process while they wait for their criminal case to wrap up are allowed to do so.

You said the lead sponsor is worried having this drug forfeiture fund allows police officers to abuse their power – have there been any incidences of this?

That’s right - backers of the bill say the current law promotes this practice of so-called “policing for profit.” But when asked if this was a widespread issue throughout various police departments – supporters of the legislation could only come up with one case dating back to 2004, which involved a former Rockingham Country Attorney who allegedly created his own forfeiture account, but that’s still under investigation.

You said police rely on this money to combat the current drug epidemic – is there anything in the bill that seeks to make up for this loss of funds?

Well, to start with, backers of the bill argue this annual $50,000 to $60,000 that would be removed if the drug forfeiture fund was eliminated is peanuts compared to the millions of additional money that has been recently added to battle this drug crisis.

But to adhere to these concerns, the House last month put in an amendment that asks the Attorney General’s Office to request that the legislature allocate funds in its budget to put towards these drug busts. As well it calls for the legislature to put $5,000 each year into a special fund used for drug prevention and treatment.

And although this change would seem to appease law enforcement – it does not. Police officers have testified that what is currently on the books allows police departments that are doing undercover drug buys to make quick turnarounds and multiple buys, which is crucial to making an arrest, especially of a drug dealer.

As well many have argued that with more than 400 people dying from overdoses last year alone – local law enforcement can’t hope and wait for the legislature to fund more money to fight this epidemic.

The Attorney General’s Office, which opposes this bill, was also skeptical that the legislature would appropriate more money if this fund was eliminated.

Recently the federal government changed its forfeiture laws – tell us a little about that.

Yes, the U.S. Department of Justice changed its forfeiture policies last week. And what it does is makes sure that local law enforcement who help out in federal drug busts get a piece of that seizure money. This is a practice that was suspended last year after the federal government began using this money to balance its budget.

This is a big win for local law enforcement who say they use this money for salaries, training and equipment. Police Chiefs in Nashua and Manchester have been vocal advocates on getting this money back, which for the entire state adds up to about a million dollars a year.

So where is this bill heading now.

Last month it passed the House on a voice vote and Thursday received its first public hearing in the Senate. Next the Senate Judiciary Committee will vote on the measure and then it will head to the full Senate.

But Gov. Maggie Hassan has already said she will veto it if it reaches her desk. She has been urging throughout the past year that this is the state's worst drug crisis in recorded history - we should be putting more money towards fighting this rather than taking it away.

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