Nebraska is poised to enact one of the nation's strictest protections against law enforcement taking a person's cash or other belongings without proving a crime was involved.

A measure passed by state lawmakers last week effectively would eliminate the process of civil forfeiture in state-level courts, and make it more difficult for local agencies to use federal courts for forfeiture if a person isn't formally accused of wrongdoing.

"This is as strong a reform as we've seen across the country," said Lee McGrath of the libertarian Institute for Justice, which supports states' efforts to limit civil forfeiture.

With the exception of a 2015 New Mexico law, no state legislation contains the wide-ranging restrictions included in Nebraska's measure.

Yet law enforcement officials who helped craft the original bill backed off after stricter language was added. They say it's far from perfect and could hamper investigations.

Sponsored by state Sen. Tommy Garrett of Bellevue, the bill was approved Wednesday by the Legislature on a 38-8 vote and will become law later this summer, barring a veto by Gov. Pete Ricketts.

Garrett called his measure a "no-brainer."

It requires law enforcement using the state court system to secure a criminal conviction before permanently claiming assets including money, guns, cars, computers or financial instruments seized as part of an investigation.

Amendments to the bill also limit when agencies can use the less restrictive federal civil forfeiture process, which doesn't require a conviction and allows law enforcement to keep a larger share of the money seized.

Nebraska's move stemmed from a nationwide backlash against civil forfeiture in recent years.

Last year, a report by the ACLU of Nebraska found law enforcement here had seized almost $43 million through the federal civil forfeiture process from 2004 to 2014, and well over $3 million through the state process since 2011. None of the money forfeited through the state process accompanied a criminal charge, and the amount of federal money associated with criminal charges was unclear.

One frequently cited case involved a pastor who had $14,000 worth of church collections in cash, checks and credit card receipts seized by Seward County sheriff's deputies who stopped him on Interstate 80. The pastor never was charged, but the money wasn't returned until the ACLU intervened.

"When you find out what's been going on, how can you abide that?" Garrett asked.

Federal authorities have gone back and forth in recent years on whether to rein in civil forfeiture.

In December, the U.S. Department of Justice temporarily stopped returning assets to agencies that seized them after Congress used $1.2 billion from the federal civil forfeiture fund as part of budget maneuvering. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch recently reinstated the program.

In Nebraska, a 17-year-old state Supreme Court decision actually encouraged civil forfeiture without criminal charges, declaring it unconstitutional double jeopardy for law enforcement to seek both in state courts.

That sometimes required law enforcement to pick between putting criminals behind bars or denying them the proceeds of their illegal activity.

Garrett's bill establishes a state forfeiture system that goes hand-in-hand with criminal proceedings.

"Overall it's a positive step forward," said Joshua Shasserre, chief of staff for Nebraska Attorney General Doug Peterson.

Without acknowledging the system had been abused before, he said Garrett's bill could help prevent inappropriate seizures.

"Presuming that they did occur, they shouldn't occur," he said.

Still, the attorney general's office says the bill "contains more than minor errors."

For example, if a person suspected of drug trafficking is stopped by local law enforcement on Interstate 80 en route to another state, it's possible Nebraska laws would provide no avenue to prosecute that person and therefore no way to permanently seize the cash, Shasserre said.

The seizure of less than $25,000 and not part of a federal investigation would not be eligible for federal civil forfeiture under Garrett's bill.

Garrett said the goal is first and foremost to protect people's due process rights.

"You can what-if things to death," he said. "If they don't have a case — too bad, so sad."

Another component of the bill will allow the ACLU and government watchdogs to keep a closer eye on forfeitures.

It requires agencies to provide detailed reports to the state auditor on assets they seize. Reports must include date of the seizure, type and description of property seized, its value, the street name and traffic direction if the seizure was part of a vehicle stop, the suspected crime, the suspect's race and whether the property was returned, sold, destroyed or kept by law enforcement.

"That may show us where there's even more reforms necessary," said Amy Miller, legal director at the ACLU of Nebraska.

Lincoln police opposed the reporting requirement, saying it would create additional work.

"It's going to have an impact," said Interim Police Chief Brian Jackson. "Will we be able to comply with it? We must and we will."

Jackson said a vast majority of Lincoln's civil forfeitures have been associated with federal cases, with drug money in state courts generally being forfeited through plea deals in criminal cases.

The department doesn't devote its resources to drug interdiction on Interstate 80, making it less likely to struggle with the $25,000 minimum threshold for federal civil forfeitures.

"That'll have a lesser impact on what we do," Jackson said.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7234 or zpluhacek@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @zachamiLJS.

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